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City pushes for more outdoor dining

By Tim Ruzek

truzek@postbulletin.com

Sitting under the shade of an umbrella, Mike Markgraf enjoyed a sunny afternoon downtown.

The Austin resident had just finished eating inside Piggy Blues Bar-B-Que last week, but decided to venture out to one of the restaurant’s sidewalk cafe tables to finish his drink and smoke a cigarette while watching the activity on North Main Street.

Markgraf said he thinks the new sidewalk cafe is good for reviving Austin’s downtown. Piggy Blues, 323 N. Main St., is one of two downtown businesses that have gone through the permit process with the city of Austin to be allowed to have an outdoor cafe on a public sidewalk.

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In November, the Austin City Council voted to drop a $100 fee for sidewalk cafes after no one started cafes on public sidewalks following the council’s passage of an ordinance in May 2006 to allow them. City leaders said the fee likely was a big reason for disinterest.

Outdoor dining previously was limited to private land.

City officials brought the idea of sidewalk cafes to the council as a way to help with Austin’s ongoing downtown revitalization effort.

Good Earth Natural Foods, 120 Third Ave. N.W., is the other business so far that has obtained a permit but hasn’t created sidewalk service yet.

Caron Jagodzinski, owner of Good Earth, said she’d like to put out several planters and two small "bistro" tables that would be for anyone to use. Her store sells natural foods but not meals like a restaurant.

With only two businesses getting a sidewalk-cafe permit so far, City Administrator Jim Hurm said you just have to see what people are comfortable with. "We still have some time."

Austin Main Street Project, a nonprofit trying to revitalize downtown, is talking with people about doing a sidewalk cafe, Hurm said. The permit is an easy process with no fees, he said.

City Clerk Lucy Johnson said applicants need to submit a drawing of their plans for a sidewalk cafe and show proof of insurance.

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There’s a slight chance El Mariachi Mexican Restaurant, 227 N. Main St., will get a sidewalk-cafe permit to put out two-person tables on its sidewalk, manager Johny Sanchez said.

"We were thinking about that, but our sidewalk doesn’t, you know, work with that," Sanchez said.

The sidewalk isn’t as wide as the Piggy Blues’ block, he said, and it’s too uneven.

Ron Meyer, co-owner of Piggy Blues, said his four-table sidewalk cafe — for Piggy Blues and his adjacent Piggy Market, which also sells food — is doing well.

Customers are using them on decent nights or lunchtimes when it’s not too windy or rainy, Meyer said.

Some people come for the outdoor dining and others use it because it’s busy inside Piggy Blues, Meyer said. On the last day of school, the outdoor dining came in handy.

"If we wouldn’t have had those tables out there, we would’ve missed some customers," he said.

Meyer and Piggy Blues co-owner Josh Diaz thought about doing the sidewalk cafe last year even with the permit fee but just didn’t get it done, Meyer said.

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In fall, the city "made it a lot easier to do," he said.

If the cafe continues to do well, Meyer said he might add tables. It looks really good, he said.

"It makes our downtown look better," Meyer said. "I mean, it’d be nice to have more."

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