As fall fast approaches and temperatures begin to moderate, restaurants in downtown Bakersfield are exploring new ideas and opportunities for outdoor dining.
And things are moving fast.
"COVID is forcing us to be more creative," said Shawna Haddad, owner of Two Goats & the Goose, a restaurant in Wall Street Alley.
Beginning last week, and continuing indefinitely, the gates at either end of the alley will be closed to vehicle traffic during dining hours every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"We received our permit from the city on Thursday, and Jerry’s Pizza has already opened up for outdoor dining," said Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, who worked out the details through the Hub of Bakersfield, a nonprofit launched by Gonzales and others aimed at revitalizing and enhancing Bakersfield's urban core.
"On the City Council, I've been working with city staff on outdoor dining permits to provide restaurants the chance to pivot and expand dining outdoors," Gonzales said. "Through the Hub, we reached out to restaurant owners who share that vision and we walked them through the process."
Gonzales said transforming the alley to outdoor dining was "a no-brainer." The one-block section was redeveloped years ago for just such events. Trash bins were moved out, trees, planters and a cobbled surface were moved in — and large gates were installed at either end that allow pedestrians easy access while blocking cars and trucks.
Gonzales credited Jonathan Yates, a Hub of Bakersfield board member, for doing much of the leg work needed to coordinate restaurant owners and make the process as easy as possible.
All three restaurants connected to that section of alley appear to be on board, including Jerry's Pizza & Pub, Two Goats & the Goose, and Mama Roomba.
"The Hub acted as the master applicant," Yates said.
Instead of each restaurant having to apply for the special event permits on their own, the Hub of Bakersfield, as the master applicant, hoped to streamline the process while allaying thee concerns of restaurateurs and their neighbors.
The process required communication with commercial neighbors on the block to make sure they wouldn't be unduly inconvenienced by the closures.
"The only wrinkle was the Sill Building, which has an underground parking garage with access in the alley," Gonzales said.
But Yates and Gonzales were able to smooth out that wrinkle by working with Sill's management and setting hours and days of closure that minimized problems.
By Thursday, Jerry's Pizza co-owner Corina Topete and her crew had set up several tables with red umbrellas as well as yellow wind sails high overhead to add color and provide extra shade.
Topete said they were seeing the faces of customers they hadn't seen for a while.
"We would not have been able to get this done without Andre or Jonathan," Topete said Saturday. "They put in a lot of work to get the permit for the alley.
"Last night the alley was flourishing with people, enjoying Wall Street Alley," she said. "The No. 1 thing that customers were telling us was they wish that Bakersfield would allow us to do this all year round in the evenings."
Haddad at Two Goats and the Goose said late Friday night she plans to expand dining to the alley.
As she watched diners enjoying the cooler evenings, and listened to the hum of conversation, she said it just felt good.
"It almost seemed normal," she said.
"I think it's a great idea," Haddad said, crediting Gonzales for pushing the concept. "This is bringing everyone up."
Gonzales and Yates are not resting following this breakthrough. They already have another street closure in the works that will focus about one block north of the alley project, and will likely include Chef's Choice Noodle Bar, JIN Sushi, Toss It salad shop, and possibly Sandrini's.
Until the state of California allows indoor dining to resume, restaurants, diners and the governments that regulate them are going to have to remain creative, open and innovative, according to Gonzalez, Yates and the restaurant owners. In a sense, the disaster of the pandemic may signal a larger change.
"As soon as Andrae got the permit signed, he literally ran to Jerry's Pizza to give it to me so that I did not have to wait one more minute to lock the gates and open outside dining," Topete said. "It was very exciting and we both felt something great was to come.
"We have a beautiful alley that is unused, and it took COVID-19 to allow us to enjoy such a setting," she said. "This has definitely boosted our sales and we are excited for the future of the alley.
"Originally when it was beautified by the Downtown Business Association, it was intended to be used for outdoor dining and socializing. My hopes are that we will be able to continue this after the pandemic."