Dining moves to parking lots, side yards and grass strips in Salt Lake City

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New outdoor patio seating at Red Rock Brewery’s back parking lot, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Utah restaurants are creating new outdoor dining options to accommodate customers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Outdoor rugs and no-frill picnic tables dot the downtown parking lot behind the Red Rock Brewpub.

Pop-up awnings used for special events — before they were all canceled — provide shade.

And a wood fence, built from used pallets lying around the beer production facility, rims the new blacktop dining area.

“For something that came together in about a week,” said general manager Stefan Marsco, “it’s pretty darn nice.”

This patio born from the pandemic also is a lifeline for the Salt Lake City eatery, providing 48 additional seats at a time when most diners do not want to sit inside a restaurant, Marsco said. “It paid for itself in the first week.”

Indoor spaces with less ventilation increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means restaurants in Utah — and across the country — have been taking tables to the streets, park strips and grassy side yards during the pandemic.

It’s become clear over the past few months that restaurants with a patio — even a makeshift one — have a survivable pulse, at least until the snow flies.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New outdoor patio seating at Red Rock Brewery’s back parking lot, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Utah restaurants are creating new outdoor dining options to accommodate customers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Before Red Rock’s parking lot dining area opened in July, customers might wait up to an hour for one of the three tables — down from five thanks to social distancing — on the small patio in front.

“I’d tell them we had plenty of tables inside,” Marsco said, “but they’d usually turn around and walk out.”

Now the back parking lot — twinkling on a recent evening thanks to strings of outdoor lights — is the most popular place to eat.

Red Rock was able to expand into the area after Salt Lake City temporarily waived restrictions on property use. Under the order issued in June by Mayor Erin Mendenhall, restaurants and other retail shops can “operate outside on their own private property, or adjacent city-owned property” including off-street parking areas and private yards.

The allowance was designed to help businesses expand guest capacity, which has been reduced anywhere from 40% to 70% now that tables must be at least 6 feet apart.

There were few restrictions; business just need to get their site plans approved by the city and — if the restaurant is allowed to serve liquor — the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Red Rock Brewing is one of only four food businesses that have taken advantage of the Salt Lake City waiver, which is set to expire on Oct. 31. Pago, Twist Bar & Bistro and Bodega are the others. A fifth patio, at HSL, is still pending.

City officials said more owners inquired about the process, but didn’t follow through.

Cost may be a factor. Marsco said Red Rock was able to pull its outdoor seating together for about $1,000, “rather cheap” because it had resources from its brewing facility.

Other restaurants might not be as lucky — unable to invest money when they already are struggling financially.

Businesses that are expanding onto public property, like grass strips, are required to take down tables, chairs and any temporary fencing each night — which is time consuming.

“You have to take everything down every single day,” said Scott Evans of Pago. “You can’t have anything permanent.”

It takes employees an extra hour to set up — and take down — the six (two-top) tables now allowed on Pago’s front park strip. Despite the extra work, Evans is grateful for the extra seating it provides his small restaurant in the 900 East and 900 South neighborhood.

“It’s definitely better than nothing,” he said, “and I appreciate that it can exist.”

Evans said he could have created a large seating area, if he had used parking spots in front of the restaurant, but that would have been more costly. “It’s hard,” he said. “You want to invest money to make it look nice. But it’s not practical.”

While restaurants are finding ways to add tables, many bars can’t make the outside seating work. Under state law, servers cannot cross the public sidewalk to deliver alcoholic beverage to customers.

Twist was an exception because owner Kirk Bengtzen could create a patio in the cul-de-sac adjacent to his business.

Salt Lake City officials also believe many restaurants were able to use other areas of their existing property to expand dining capacity, without having to go through the city.

That was the case for Dean Pierose, owner of Cucina Deli. He recently added 10 tables to his side parking lot.

He spent $3,000 on new patio furniture, but didn’t have to fork over money for umbrellas or awnings. “I’m lucky,” he said. “By 6:30 at night we have shade.”

Cucina is faring better than most eateries, he said. The deli was well equipped for to-go orders and delivery, and it has several ongoing catering contracts.

”It’s sad to say,” he said. “We’re kind of built for the pandemic.”

Still, Pierose knows that the patio seating is a temporary while the weather is comfortable. He’s already looking into space heaters and more permanent structures to extend the outdoor dining season into fall.

Ryan Lowder, chef owner of the Copper Onion, also was able to work with his landlord on a 50-seat patio expansion at his downtown restaurant.

“We’re not seating anyone inside,” he said of his restaurant, “but we came close to doubling our outside seating.”

Lowder is already looking ahead to cool weather. “We’re looking at getting some heaters and see how it all plays out.”

His predictions are ominous.

“Fall and winter,” he said, “is going to be ugly for our industry.”