Kalamazoo's Social District will give customers of restaurants and taverns a chance to be outdoors

The Social District will soon be a part of downtown Kalamazoo’s entertainment landscape.
 
And the owners of restaurants and taverns are hoping it will help them reclaim some of the customer traffic they have lost over the last six months as the COVID-19 pandemic made any large gathering place a thing to be avoided.
 
“I think it will help,” says Steve Stamos, owner of the Blue Dolphin restaurant Papa Pete’s tavern at 502 S. Burdick St.
 
As social distancing rules from the state limit restaurant and bar owners to only 50 percent of their normal indoor customer space, he says, “They’re just trying to do things that are safe and that get people out.”
 
Speaking of entertainment during this age of the coronavirus, he says, “It’s about being able to walk around outside.”
 
Last weekend, the outdoor seating at 600 Kitchen & Bar (at 600 E. Michigan Ave.), more than doubled with the expansion of seating into an area that had been parking spaces on the west side of the business. It is shown at the right side of this image.The Social District will include a designated commons area that allows customers or downtown restaurants and taverns to “purchase alcoholic beverages from adjacent, licensed establishments, and shops, sit outside or walk around, as long as they remain within the commons area,” according to information provided by the City of Kalamazoo.
 
Although city officials have said it may be enlarged, the commons area is two linear tracts that run north-to-south along the Kalamazoo Mall for about seven blocks and east-to-west for about five blocks along Michigan Avenue. It includes the Kalamazoo Mall, Michigan Avenue, Exchange Place Alley from Portage Street to the Kalamazoo Mall, and Farmers Alley from Exchange Place Alley to Michigan Avenue.
 
“This was designed as a way to create some additional social distancing space,” Andrew Haan, president of Kalamazoo Downtown Partners told members of the Kalamazoo City Commission at their digital meeting on Aug. 3. “We’re confident this will help our businesses.”
 
At that meeting, the seven-member commission unanimously approved a resolution that was passed into law on July 1 by the Michigan Legislation as an economic recovery tool intended to help hospitality businesses survive the indoor limitations resulting from the fight against COVID-19.

Interested restaurants and taverns are working with the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership and are applying with the Michigan Liquor Control Commission for approval to participate in the planned Social District. They hope to have it in operation able in the next few weeks.

“It can’t hurt,” says Alex Mantakounis, owner of Tempo Vino Winery at 260 E. Michigan Ave.
 
The Blue Dolphin Restaurant, owned by Steve Stamos, sits at 502 S. Kalamazoo Mall, the southern end of Kalamazoo's planned Social District. Of entertainment during this age of the coronavirus, “he says, It’s about being able to walk around outside."With online sales and curbside pickup, Mantakounis says the 15-year-old boutique winery has been able to weather the pandemic shutdown. Tempo Vino Winery only sells wine that it makes on-site and it hosts wine tasting events and small-batch wine-making gatherings for businesses, bachelorette parties, book clubs, and other organizations.
 
Efforts to keep workers and customers safe continue to mean limiting the number of customers inside.
 
“We can only have so many people in the store at once, due to social distancing,” Mantakounis says. “So our capacity is very small.”
 
The indoor capacity for his business is 50 people. It and other businesses can only use half their indoor capacity, in compliance with executive orders from the state. So utilizing additional space outdoors, “that allows you, basically, to take that capacity outside,” he says.
 
Along with Coney Island Hot Dogs, Greentop Tavern, and Fuze Kitchen & Bar, Tempo Vino has a patio deck outside its rear door in Bates Alley. Tempo Vino’s deck seats 20 people.
 
At the other end of the downtown, Stamos says expanding patrons’ use of the outdoors, and increasing their potential to roam from eating and drinking places to shops and other merchants, has to be a help.
 
The commons area will allow people to walk outdoors from place to place within the district – with a drink in hand. But Haan told members of the Kalamazoo City Commission, “It will not be like New Orleans.” Drinks handled outside will be contained in disposable plastic cups no larger than 16 oz. They will also be required to bear the name of the tavern or restaurant that provided the drink.
 
“This is an opportunity to support businesses during a time when indoor capacities are limited and many people are most comfortable being outdoors,” Haan has said. “The creation of a commons area gives us the opportunity to marry the need to help businesses keep (their) doors open and the community’s desire to have more outdoor, socially-distant activities.”
 
That is incredibly important to taverns and restaurants, many of which have sustained huge financial losses during the COVID-19 shutdown.
 
“For three months we were operating with four employees at each location,” says Shelly Pastor, an operating partner in the Millennium Restaurant Group.
 
The Kalamazoo-based restaurant group includes Martell’s, Central City Tap House, Centre Street Tap House, The Union Cabaret & Grille, Fieldstone Grill, The Wine Loft, Cove Lakeside Bistro, 600 Kitchen & Bar, Cityscape Event Centre and Millennium Catering.
 
The state-ordered shutdown of all but life-essential businesses caused the group to try to operate its eight sit-down eateries as take-out only operations. But it ended up having to temporarily close four of them.
 
“We tried for about a month and a half to do just to-go orders,” Pastor says, “and it was just good money after bad.”
 
That forced the group to cut its company-wide workforce from 430 workers to fewer than 50. And from March to June, salaried managers operated all of the businesses that make up the group.
 
Since then, as COVID-related executive orders from the state have eased, the group has been able to recall workers and regrow its staff to 283. But four of its five downtown locations (Central City Tap House, The Union Cabaret & Grille, The Wine Loft, and Cityscape Event Centre) have remained closed to the public for most of the last six months and are still not expected to re-open until after Labor Day. All are in the Social District.
 
The fifth location, 600 Kitchen & Bar (at 600 E. Michigan Ave.) is on the eastern cusp of the Social District and is open with 50-percent indoor capacity and just-expanded outdoor seating capacity. Last weekend, its outdoor seating was more than doubled, from 20 to 48, with the addition of a seating area in what had been parking spaces on the west side of the business.
 
“We’re doing 50-percent capacity with full social-distancing inside,” Pastor says. That has reduced the number of indoor tables from 30 to 15. Including the space necessary for social distancing at its indoor bar area, that has reduced the inside capacity from about 200 people to fewer than 90.
 
But top managers of the business remain optimistic, Pastor says. “We’re encouraged by the Social District. We are,” she says. She says Millennium will be patient to see what the public response will be but recognizes that expanding the outdoor capacity of restaurants, which is the goal of the Social District, appears to be a good way to go.
 
That appears to be exemplified by Principle, at 230 S. Kalamazoo Mall, and Rustica, at 236 S. Kalamazoo Mall, Pastor says. Those restaurants have grown the outdoor seating adjacent to them in the 200 block of the South Kalamazoo Mall (by also including some space that had been used for parking) and appear to be generating extra revenue as a result.
 
Among other efforts to expand outdoor capacity in the downtown, the Monroe-Brown Foundation, a local nonprofit organization known for its promotion of higher education, is working to raise $50,000 to help transform the public alley adjacent to the Haymarket Building into a new public gathering place.
 
The alley is located between four downtown buildings (229-251 E. Michigan Ave. and the $100 million office building that is under construction at 180 E. Water St.) and is to be called the Haymarket Plaza. It is expected to have: outdoor seating for a wine bar (it is adjacent to The Wine Loft); space for food trucks and entertainment; high-speed public Internet access; heated pavement to prevent the build-up of snow and ice; and new lighting. Furnishings are to be provided by Galesburg-based outdoor furniture specialist Landscape Forms.
 
Asked if he is nervous about having people walk around the downtown with open intoxicants, Stamos says, “Not nervous, (I’m) very nervous. I worry about somebody getting my cup who is not 21.”
 
State laws require drinking establishments to check the age of their customers and make sure they are not overserving anyone who appears to already be intoxicated. But Stamos worries that he will have no control over a patron who buys a drink legally, then walks outside and gives it to someone who is under the legal drinking age.
 
“Once they go outside, I’ve lost control,” Stamos says. “What if they give the cup to a 19-year-old?”
 
He, Pastor, and Mantakounis say they are, nonetheless, optimistic about the effort the city is making.
 
“We are optimistic by nature as a group and as a company,” Pastor says. “I do hope this will help.”
 
Mantakounis says, “We think it will be a help. Any way you can get more product out the door …”
 
And Stamos says, “The biggest thing is we’re going to try it. We’re going to do everything that the state says we should do.”
 
If it works, that will be great, he says. If it doesn’t, he will discontinue it.
 
Some things to know
 
•  About two dozen businesses in the Social District are qualified to participate, according to the city. But they must work with the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership and apply to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to do so.
 
• The commons area will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; and from 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
 
• Drinks handled outside will be contained in disposable,16-ounce plastic cups that bear the name of the tavern or restaurant that provided the drink.
 
• Businesses that want to participate are in the process of applying to do so through the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.
 
• The boundaries of the entire Social District are the same as those used by the Kalamazoo Downtown Economic Growth Authority.

A map of the downtown Social District in Kalamazoo

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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