BURLINGTON -- The seasonal proliferation of outdoor cafes in downtown Burlington makes Church Street look like an Italian piazza on a balmy summer eve. And those patron-packed tables don't just add to the atmosphere; they bring in the bucks.
Ron Redmond, executive director of the Church Street Marketplace, says the period between January and April tends to be slow for most establishments. The summer seating -- which is essentially a temporary business expansion -- allows them to play catch-up. "Our sidewalk cafes are huge in terms of making it possible to help these establishments over that bumpy road," he observes. Burlington's bar and restaurant owners almost invariably describe their outdoor seating areas as "vital."
"On a nice day, nobody wants to be inside," says Bill Shahady, the co-owner of the Wine Bar at Wine Works, who fought the city for three years to be able to put six tables on St. Paul Street. "You want to hit somebody below the belt, take away their ability to serve outside."
That's exactly what Burlington's Local Control Commission -- a body composed of members of the City Council -- did last week to the Radio Bean cafe on North Winooski Avenue. On Monday, June 26, the Commission voted to revoke Radio Bean's license to serve alcohol at its three sidewalk tables. The Commission also suspended the Bean's indoor liquor license for one four-day period in July.
The sanctions resulted from an overcrowding incident in May, for which the Bean received a $200 noise violation. The fire marshal noted there were too many people packed into the venue's small space, and reported that some patrons were sitting at sidewalk tables drinking alcohol while just one person was on duty inside the bar. Radio Bean hasn't had a single alcohol-related incident or altercation in six years of operation, but state regulations require that both indoor and outdoor areas be supervised.
City Councilor Paul Decelles calls the lack of outdoor supervision "a major violation." "I'm as pro-business as anyone," says the New North End Republican, "but something as serious as this . . . the four-day suspension could be considered a little light."
Decelles, who has never been to the Radio Bean, suggests that policing both indoor and outdoor areas is just too much to ask of one person.
But Radio Bean owner Lee Anderson says he can't afford to hire a second staff person. "It would be really, really hard for us to employ two people at all times," he explains.
Anderson, who also plays harmonica for a band called Cccome?, stops to talk before heading to the 1/2 Lounge for a gig. He says he plans to reapply for his outdoor liquor license, but is not sure how he'll deal with the staffing requirement.
"We've talked about having volunteer door people, doing one shift a month," he says. "We already have a guy who volunteers to monitor the door once a week."
The fact that the Bean's customers are stepping up to help out isn't a surprise; the cafe has become a hub for artists and musicians looking for an
intimate performance space. And Anderson actively cultivates community, both in his space and in the 'hood, by organizing arts events such as the Old North End Ramble. Radio Bean isn't just a bar; it's a cultural Mecca. But to function as such, and stay in the black, the place has to be a successful bar, too. And that'll be difficult without an outdoor consumption license. Anderson says people have already started to complain about it.
It was stifling hot inside the cafe last Thursday night when Susan Weiss and Robin Perlah tried to bring drinks outside -- only to be ordered back inside by a vigilant barista. She and Weiss found themselves seated at a metal table listening to subdued live jazz that was just audible over rock music emanating from The O.P. next door.
Good music isn't enough, apparently. If she had known she couldn't drink outside, Perlah says, "I would have left."