You can now have your food and eat it too in Market Square — and beer could be next.
Coronavirus has increased the demand for outdoor seating at restaurants, but, in some cases, social distancing measures have reduced the number of outdoor tables available.
Market Square restaurants now have space to expand outdoor seating in the square, itself, and an ordinance passed Tuesday will allow beer to be served in those expanded seating areas.
A new look in Market Square
Mahasti Vafaie, co-owner of The Tomato Head, told Knox News most customers have preferred to sit outside during the pandemic. And not being able to provide outdoor seating can turn customers away.
The restaurant only has been able to seat customers at four of its outdoor tables to maintain social distancing.
But a new setup in Market Square is allowing The Tomato Head to add around 20 seats across eight tables, thanks to a new city permit allowing businesses to expand seating into parking lots and other public spaces.
New fencing rented by the Downtown Knoxville Alliance divides the square into sections. The Tomato Head has a section in front of the restaurant, and each restaurant is responsible for adding their own tables, Vafaie said.
“The seating configuration inside the fencing can be individualized to accommodate multiple restaurants, with appropriate physical distancing, if several are offering outdoor dining at the same time,” city spokesman Eric Vreeland told Knox News in an email.
The city had received five applications as of Friday, and only one of those businesses currently is open. Vreeland said The Tomato Head and Not Watson’s are the only Market Square restaurants to have temporary permits approved.
Expanded seating is not limited to Market Square; any restaurant in city limits can apply.
A ‘proactive’ idea for beer sales
Prior to Tuesday, beer sales were not allowed under city code in expanded outdoor dining areas. But city council approved an emergency ordinance Tuesday night at the request of the Knoxville Beer Board, allowing businesses with on-premise beer permits to serve beer in these temporary areas.
Restaurants will have to apply separately for an expanded outdoor seating permit and a permit to serve beer in the temporary area. The Beer Board will have to approve the latter, Vreeland said.
“The idea is to be proactive and offer opportunities for increased social distancing but also support for our restaurants so they can stay in business and their workers can stay working,” said Andrew Roberto, city councilman and Beer Board chairman.
Vafaie said The Tomato Head plans to apply for beer service in the temporary seating area, which the restaurant plans to use for dining this week.
Using the space depends on the weather, as the area is not covered. Even if it was, servers still would have to walk in the rain to deliver food.
The distance is not a problem on a clear day, Vafaie said. She used to be a waitress at The Tomato Head in the early days and would serve customers at the city tables in Market Square.
Walking back and forth was a nice workout, she said, but the space can be used effectively.
Giving restaurants ‘greater flexibility’
Despite her previous experience serving in the square, Vafaie said, the idea didn’t occur to her during the pandemic. The city came up with the plan.
“I just want to say I’m really appreciative of the city being so forward thinking and thinking outside the box — utilizing space that’s not being utilized and helping businesses that are struggling,” she said. “It could have easily been ignored, and they were very proactive in getting this done.”
Roberto said the idea for the beer ordinance did not come from any specific restaurant requests; it simply was something the city thought could help out.
“What I have heard from restaurants is wanting us to do anything we can to give them greater flexibility and try to basically stay open,” he said.
The temporary seating area is set up in the center of Market Square, where the ice rink is installed during the winter.
A ‘huge financial hit’ for businesses
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announced the the temporary seating permit last month in response to the “huge financial hit” she said local restaurants took during the spring.
The permit is for restaurants in city limits and can be used for both public and private outdoor spaces. Examples include private parking lots, public parking spaces and “underutilized public and private property,” according to a news release.
Permit applications are available at knoxvilletn.gov/outdoordining.
Applying for a temporary use permit costs $100. The time frame for each permit will be determined as the permit is issued, according to the city.
The city encourages restaurant owners to “think creatively” about available space when applying.
Applicants must get written permission from any nearby resident, property owner or business that could be affected by expanded seating.