More outdoor dining helping some Hamilton restaurants through pandemic

Thanks to seven picnic tables Hamilton staff placed outside the High Street Cafe, business has been good there, at what otherwise would be a difficult time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tables have helped “big time,” said Phil Wong, the chef and one of the property owners there. “Right now, pretty much all my tables outside are packed almost, right now.”

“The outside dining has been a big part,” he said. “We do a lot of carryout here, but this gives people the option to sit outside and enjoy the weather, as well.

“Since I don’t have inside dining because of our small, tight space inside — I converted an old Hallmark building into a restaurant, and it’s a very narrow space — (City Manager) Joshua Smith and all the city guys were very nice to set out tables for us.”

Before the pandemic, High Street Cafe had just two small bistro tables out front.

Not far away, at Municipal Brew Works, the city blocks off a section of Market Street near the side entrance of the Marriott, allowing people to sit there in lawn chairs.

“And we encourage that,” said Jim Goodman, the CEO and a co-founder. “That way, people can grab their drink or order from a food truck and plop down in their lawn chairs, and just spread out as much as possible.”

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As for business, “overall, it’s not been as bad as anticipated,” he said. “We’ve actually had a fairly good summer. Our distribution numbers are down, but that’s to be expected, with bars and restaurants at minimum capacity, but our tap-room numbers are very strong, primarily because we launched our hard seltzers in May, and also because we’re in a DORA (Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area) district.”

“DORA definitely saved some jobs in our tap room, for sure,” Goodman said.

Only one production employee was laid off, and returned in two weeks, he said.

“The city and the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce have been nothing but accommodating to anything we could possibly ask for. They’ll listen, and try to help you out,” Goodman said.

Unexpectedly, he said, “our hard seltzers have become our No. 1 seller. It’s been a hot summer, so maybe that’s way.”

The seltzers come out of the tap unflavored, and purees are added, such as raspberry, strawberry, or strawberry lemonade. There’s also a flavor called P.O.G., a mixture of passion fruit, orange and guava.

City and parks employees in May put out picnic tables in several areas of downtown and Main Street. That program was successful enough that more were added, including at High Street Cafe.

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“You want to talk about making the best out of a bad situation, the city and the chamber of commerce have really bent over backwards and try to accommodate and make things better for the businesses downtown,” Goodman said. “It certainly hasn’t been fun for anybody, especially small-business owners, but they’re trying to do everything possible to make things a little better for everyone.”

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