A new dining trend is coming to Maine: street food, literally.
Restaurants may soon serve meals and drinks on patios that take the place of street parking spots or other public spaces outside of their regular dining rooms. The trend, well established in other U.S. cities, was made possible by a new law allowing restaurants to serve alcohol in areas not physically connected to their buildings.
Biddeford and Westbrook are poised to become the first Maine cities to give a green light to on-street dining.
“It’s really innovative and a great way to make downtown more walkable and accessible,” said Biddeford restaurant owner Stacy Cooper, who is considering adding outdoor dining near Biscuits & Company.
The change in state law, effective Aug. 1, allows businesses to serve alcohol in a cordoned-off public area that is not physically connected to the building where the business has an on-premises license. Previously, bars and restaurants could only serve inside the building or in an attached outdoor area.
In Biddeford, that could mean restaurants setting up temporary patios on structures built on parking spaces along downtown streets. This month, the City Council approved a pilot program for this summer to test the idea, although it’s not clear if any restaurants will have time to open a new outdoor space this season.
Westbrook will also take advantage of the law change, with plans to redesign an underutilized open space off Main Street for use as a dining patio by multiple businesses. Legends Rest Taproom will be the first Westbrook restaurant to take advantage of the law change when it opens an outdoor seating area this summer on the edge of the river walk next to the Presumpscot River.
“It makes it a vibrant downtown, and that’s exactly what we’re striving for,” said Daniel Stevenson, Westbrook’s economic development director.
The idea of these outdoor dining platforms is new to Maine, but they are used in other communities across the country and in Canada. In Duluth, Minnesota, platforms – some covered, some open – sit along streets in the downtown. Similar structures have been built in Portland, Oregon, New York City and Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
The idea of bringing new options for outdoor spaces originated in Biddeford, where City Councilor Victoria Foley talked with city staff about the dining platforms used in cities outside Maine. Biddeford’s sidewalks are relatively narrow, which limits the options for outdoor tables for the growing number of restaurants downtown. But allowing those businesses to set up tables farther from the restaurants was not an option because servers cannot cross over public space – such as a sidewalk – while staying in compliance with their liquor licenses.
Sen. Susan Deschambault of Biddeford was approached by city officials about proposing a change in state law and saw it as an easy and common-sense fix to help local businesses take advantage of the short summer season. She sponsored L.D. 1738, which was written by Stevenson, then the economic development director in Biddeford.
“The more we looked into the idea, the more it seemed that it was something that was doable,” Deschambault said. “I see it as my little drop in the bucket for economic development.”
Stevenson said Westbrook is planning to redesign and rebuild Westbrook Commons – known locally as Blue Note Park – from a concrete park area to a space that could be cordoned off for local businesses. He envisions dining areas and a stage for musical performances. Businesses also may be able to use open spaces along sidewalks and the river walk to create outdoor dining areas to draw in customers, Stevenson said.
“This is a prime example of how we could take areas that are underutilized and really drive people right into our downtown,” he said. “This will help us be more destination-oriented.”
Delilah Poupore, executive director of the Heart of Biddeford, which promotes the downtown, said she is excited by the law change. When she first heard about the proposal, she immediately thought of the outdoor dining platforms she has seen in places like Duluth, Minnesota, and Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
“It brings more liveliness and activity onto the streets. It provides something exciting,” she said.
After the Legislature approved the revised law, the Biddeford City Council approved ordinance changes as part of a pilot program that runs through October. Businesses that participate would have to obtain a $1,000 annual permit from the city after code enforcement officials determine the space meets certain standards, including leaving adequate room for pedestrians and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The outdoor area must be controlled by barriers and have signs indicating people cannot consume alcohol beyond the barriers. The outdoor seating must be within 20 feet of the restaurant, and an elevated platform in a parking spot must be flush with the top of the curb.
Biddeford City Manager James Bennett said he has seen similar outdoor dining areas set up in Quebec City that are popular with diners and add to the vibrancy of the area.
“We wanted to create some opportunities for our emerging dining scene in the downtown area to have outdoor seating,” he said.
But, Bennett said, Biddeford officials also want to take a cautious approach to implementing the changes to make sure they work for the city. Because of the mid-summer effective date of the new law and the logistics of setting up an outdoor area, it’s likely no Biddeford restaurants will be able to take advantage of the pilot program this year, he said.
City officials have been meeting with restaurant owners to talk about options and have discussed the possibility of having students from the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology build the platforms.
Jim Albert and his business partner, Alex Markakis, are excited about the possibility of giving their customers at CowBell Burger Bar, Martinis on Main and Uncorked Wine Bar the opportunity to enjoy their food and drinks outside in downtown Biddeford. Markakis said Biddeford “is coming along tremendously” with more businesses and foot traffic, and appreciates that the city is thinking creatively as the restaurant scene grows.
“I think it would help change the face of downtown,” Albert said. “Obviously there’s some concerns with traffic and eating up a couple of parking spots, but I think that’s low-impact. The good outweighs the negative in this space.”
For now, Albert and Markakis are developing plans that would be feasible for their businesses.
Rick Robitaille, owner of Louis Pizza on Alfred Street, also is interested in the idea of offering outdoor dining, but said there are many things for restaurant owners to consider. Businesses will have to invest money in the city permit and in building a platform, he said, but also have to worry about the liability of people walking off with alcohol.
“It’s something to look at,” he said. “I’m not ruling it out.”
Like Robitaille, Cooper – the owner of Biscuits & Company – has been thinking about the liability and safety issues, but that hasn’t put a damper on her excitement about the possibilities for the downtown business community.
“Even if it doesn’t happen in front of our space, I’d love to see it happen downtown,” she said. “It’s such a neat way to have some creativity in the middle of downtown.”