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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Andy and Holly Perry of Milford read a sign posted outside of Martha's Exchange in downtown Nashua that says that public sidewalk seating isn't available. Anyone wanting to enjoy a meal or drink at outdoor seating provided by a downtown restaurant in Nashua has to wait until April according to a city ordinance.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Diners watch the afternoon go by at Martha's Exchange in downtown Nashua Wednesday, March 21 2012. Anyone wanting to enjoy a meal or drink at outdoor seating provided by a downtown restaurant in Nashua has to wait until April according to a city ordinance.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    A server walks back to Martha's Exchange after waiting on a table in a restaurant-owned alley. Outdoor seating on a public sidewalk isn't available until April.
Thursday, March 22, 2012

City officials say no to early outdoor seating downtown despite 80 degree temps

NASHUA – Andy and Holly Perry, of Milford, made their way to Martha’s Exchange on Wednesday afternoon to enjoy lunch outside in the 80-degree weather, but were surprised at what they found.

In front of the popular Main Street eatery stood a handwritten sign stating, “No sidewalk dining per order by the city of Nashua!”

In front of Martha’s, 12 metal tables and 48 chairs stood vacant and stacked behind the restaurant’s decorative planters outlining the seating area.

“I would think people would want to be logical and think business-minded,” Holly Perry said. “Why don’t they want to help businesses, especially these days?”

The only outdoor patrons to be found were squished around the corner from the restaurant on Martha’s-owned property in an alley next to TD Bank.

“We’re actually going to try the alley,” Andy Perry said with a laugh. “I’m hoping it’s conducive to dining.”

The sign, and the order, are the result of a city ordinance that prevents downtown establishments from utilizing public sidewalks for outdoor dining until April.

Typically the start date for “open air cafes” to open up outdoor seating areas is April 15, Public Works director Lisa Fauteux said.

A combination of city departments agree on the start time, she said, including the public works, public health and economic development departments, as well as the city fire marshal.

“Traditionally, there seems to always be that storm in late March,” Fauteux said. “By the time the snow melts and we get the sidewalks swept, it takes until April 15. … This is unusual weather, so we’re trying to adjust to it as quickly as we can.”

In the wake of a mild winter, the city agreed to bump the start date up two weeks earlier, to April 1, she said.

And when St. Patrick’s Day promised unusually lucky temperatures this past Saturday, the city also allowed all downtown businesses to apply for a special temporary permit to serve customers outdoors for the holiday, after one business owner called and requested permission to do so.

“We really want to work with people, and we understand that outdoor dining is something people enjoy and makes for a vibrant atmosphere downtown so we want to support that,” Fauteux said.

Still, downtown business owners say they can’t help but look at the thermometers this week and the activity on Main Street and imagine the business they could be doing outside.

At Martha’s, on Tuesday, owners Chris and Bill Fokas took advantage of the 80-degree forecasts by allowing customers to dine in the outdoor area they’d set up for St. Patrick’s Day. That afternoon, the street department called and requested that they send their customers back inside per city ordinance, they said.

“When we had the tables out here yesterday before 2 p.m., there was activity, there was people walking around, it was a great atmosphere,” Chris Fokas said. “The minute we took these tables in yesterday, I came out here half an hour later – nobody was on the street. The whole atmosphere had changed.”

“They’re trying to revitalize downtown,” Bill Fokas said. “Put flowers out, put this out, put that out. Allow people to sit outside on an 85-degree day and have lunch.”

Bill Fokas said the city issued a temporary permit allowing earlier use of the sidewalks for three or four warm days last April. While the St. Patrick’s Day permit helped businesses this spring, it also showed the high demand for the tables, he said. Martha’s served 12 tables full of people from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday.

“If you can make an exception for one day, do it for the week,” Chris Fokas said. “It’s great for the merchants – all of them – not just the restaurants. It creates excitement and activity.”

With the amended start date on outdoor dining just 12 days away, Fauteux said the city would not likely be able to get the street cleaning done much earlier than April 1.

“We’ve got to make sure the sidewalks are swept before we can allow the people to get out there,” Fauteux said. “We’re already jumping through hoops to try and get that done.”

Down the street, other businesses jammed as many tables as they could onto their private property fronts, under building overhangs and canopies, to make use of the little space allowed for outdoor service.

At O’Brien’s Sports Bar, two tiny tables sat pressed up against the restaurant’s windows, with four customers roped in, having a drink.

“I don’t think people mind right now, only because we’ve told them the policy,” O’Brien’s Kitchen manager Steve Gibson said. “They’re happy to be sitting outside, period.”

Typically O’Brien’s spreads four or five tables out onto the sidewalk to hold 16-20 people, Gibson said.

“First, it was the parking,” Gibson said. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that. It’s very hard for businesses to make money.”

Sarah Birmingham and Marie Baker, of Nashua, had made their way to O’Brien’s to take advantage of the small outdoor dining space.

Birmingham and Baker had started their day at the Nashua Garden across the street, sharing lunch in the back corner of the restaurant, before finding a place where they could enjoy the afternoon in the sunshine.

But they said they understood the situation.

“The weather is so unpredictable,” Baker said. “That’s obviously the hard part in New England. It’s probably going to snow next week.”

Nashua Garden employee Jim Sano said his restaurant took advantage of the St. Patrick’s Day permit and collected their seats and tables the next day, per city ordinance.

“I don’t see why not,” he said of allowing customers to eat outside. “They could just tell us the date of the street cleaning and we could pull the tables in for the night. It wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Sano said it takes almost a week of time and effort to get the city to issue temporary permits to allow outdoor seating earlier in the season.

The Garden normally hosts seating for 12 outdoors, he said.

“It’s frustrating because it’s nice out,” Sano said. “It definitely brings more people in.”

Ultimately, Chris and Bill Fokas said they want a temporary solution, or to see the aldermen change the ordinance to be more flexible when the weather allows outdoor business earlier.

“I understand it’s the law,” Bill Fokas said. “I don’t agree. … Next year, change the ordinance. You’ve got a year to do it.”

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).