Although summer might not be the most comfortable time to eat outdoors, Tahlequah restaurants have been serving customers outside, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to limit capacity and sometimes close shop altogether.
When the city began allowing restaurants to offer outdoor dining, the brothers at Linney Breaux's decided to spruce up their patio seating to keep dishing out Cajun cuisine. Michael Linney, co-owner, said they've held off on opening the inside since there have been spikes in cases and there was a possibility of a mask mandate. But for the most part, he said, the outdoor area has been a popular new feature.
"The first couple of weeks, with the humidity and it being so hot, some people would just order to-go," he said. "Still, regardless of the heat, our lunches have been packed out there. Most customers don't mind the heat, but it is a little hot. We put some misters out there for whenever it gets too hot."
Not only has the restaurant wanted to keep customers and employees safe, but the inside of the building is almost entirely dedicated to its curbside operation. Even if they did open the dining room, Linney said they would likely only be able to have three tables for customers. So they've adjusted to the times and taken their seating out back, where in the evenings, they've introduced musical accompaniment to the dining experience.
Shane Keys has been playing his fiddle out on the patio.
"He throws some Cajun jams in there every now and then," said Linney.
The restaurant has been receiving both local and out-of-town customers. Linney said they recently had a group from Dallas sit outside and enjoy a meal. Currently, there are no plans to start serving inside.
"We're going to keep operating this way until we feel it's safe for us to open up the dining room again," said Linney. "I don't know when that will be. Hopefully soon, because there are some customers who still ask if the dining room is open. Every day we have those calls, but it's not totally killing us."
The COVID-19 virus has created financial hardships for many businesses, including restaurants. Out West Cafe, a popular breakfast and lunch joint, was one of many to see its bank account take a hit. Owner Melvin Hendrix said with the way his building is set up, there was no way he could offer curbside or drive-thru options.
"It cost me about $10,000 for that six to eight weeks that we were having trouble, and I didn't get any of the stimulus money from anywhere," he said. "I applied for it, but didn't get it."
Out West Cafe is known for its breakfast menu, and about 75 to 80 percent of its business comes from early morning diners. But according to Hendrix, not many breakfast eaters want to take the food home.
"They want to eat it hot, so by the time you get breakfast home, it's cold," he said. "So I was doing 15 to 20 percent of the normal day's sales. Since we've opened back up, we're getting real close to being normal again. We're having a pretty busy month this month."
As one way to supplement the loss of inside seating, Out West opened some outdoor space for customers. A patio is partially covered, and there are tables with umbrellas out front. Hendrix said when they first reopened, he saw a decent-sized group come to visit, but since the Oklahoma heat has come into play, it's not as popular anymore.
"If people want to sit out there, we've got it available," he said. "I've just got a sign out there that says, 'Please come in and inform us that you're there.' Since it's gotten hot, I don't have but maybe one or two people a week using it."
As a way to help restaurants expand their capacity, the Tahlequah City Council recently voted to drop the price for Main Street businesses to rent the parking spaces or bumpouts outside of their shops, to provide more seating for customers. It's an existing ordinance that was put in place in 2018, but historically, it has cost $1,000 a year for owners to rent. Now, it will cost only $1.
"We're trying to create ways to help businesses maintain, instead of having to be negatively affected by all this stuff," said Ward 4 City Councilor Trae Ratliff.
The owners of the business only have to pay the $1, but the rest of the outdoor space is up to them. The design has to be presented to the City Council, and the space cannot be permanent in case the city needs it or if owners move, and there are certain rules to abide by.
"We don't want a bunch of pallets nailed together, but we're just trying to open that up and feel like there's a need, especially for places that have a small capacity on the inside," said Ratliff. "People may not feel comfortable sitting in Boomarang with 40 people, but if you can fit six to 10 people outside, that might be helpful."
Other food establishments in town with outdoor seating include Vidalias Cafe, The Grill, The Branch, The Drip, Cantina Bravo, and Hangry Baer Kitchen.