It’s taken almost all summer, but the first step in an effort to bring European-style outdoor plazas to Seattle has begun. Popular beer destination Optimism Brewing on Capitol Hill is the first business to be approved for the city’s new free street closure permits — a way to increase outdoor restaurant and bar seating. The brewery used the permit to expand its outdoor beer garden on Broadway Court this past weekend, more than doubling capacity.
Last month, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that restaurants (and other retail businesses) in Seattle could apply for a special permit to close down one or more blocks outside for service. The usually-pricey permit costs have been waived, but applicants must jump through several hoops before they receive approval, such as getting permission from neighbors and footing the bill for barricades. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says it has received more than 20 requests, but is still going through the approval process for many.
Optimism owner Gay Gilmore says the brewery had already requested permission to close Broadway Court (which is not an arterial street) months ago, which is why it was among the first in line for the new initiative, and that neighboring businesses were supportive.
“While I’d hoped for earlier approval, I will say the city was great to work with on the street activation,” she says, adding that the SDOT helped the brewery figure out the logistics on setting up the space legally and safely for non-pedestrian traffic.
The street closure plan — along with a recent effort to streamline sidewalk seating permits — is meant to give businesses more options to serve people outdoors, where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is lower. It may also give restaurants and bars more flexibility. Seattle is currently still in phase two of Washington’s reopening plan, which allows for 50 percent capacity indoors and outdoors, but only people from the same household can sit together inside at restaurants. Breweries must serve a full food menu or possess a restaurant license (which Optimism has) to seat anybody inside.
Even with the new seating, Optimism continues to look for new ways to generate revenue. Gilmore says that the large space has been attractive for people working from home during the pandemic, who want a change of scenery. In order to accommodate demand, the brewery now has “work tables” available for reservations in the morning at $15-20 a pop, before it officially opens to the public. Gilmore says Optimism follows the same safety protocols as co-working spaces during this time, and says the response has been positive. There’s unlimited sparkling water included, as well as a “happy hour” pint.
“Look, no one is going to confuse our plain metal stools for the comfy digs of WeWork Herman Miller chairs or anything, but it is a fun change of pace for people, and we need every little bit of sales we can get right now,” Gilmore says. “Pivots come in all shapes and sizes. We have to use whatever assets we have.”