Portland firm pivots to selling cozy outdoor dining pods
When COVID-19 hit, the Portland Bureau of Transportation created the Healthy Businesses program to help business adapt to the pandemic economy. It allows restaurants to set up outdoor dining in the right of way (where cars would normally park, but not where they would be driving by at full tilt).
For many restaurants, it's take-out or sit outside only and many of them see street dining as their last chance to stay afloat.
The bureau has issued 427 Healthy Business permits this winter, compared with 723 for summer 2020. In comparison, PBOT also issued 181 five-minute pickup/drop off zone permits.
Winter permits are free and last through March 31.
If the thought of eating in a large, drafty tent with unmasked strangers has been unappealing for many, help may be at hand. Portland design and fabrication company Figure Plant's bread and butter was making cool constructions for events. They would fabricate stages, trailers and sculptures for all the big-budget brands, things like a stage for the Firefly music festival, a 10-foot Adidas shoe for projection mapping with colored lights, a snack cannon for a popcorn brand, and a custom geodesic dome for Airbnb winners to watch the eclipse.
When the pandemic shut down the conference business, Figure Plant's founder and creative director David Fredrickson said they laid some people off, took a federal loan and decided to refocus on the restaurant industry until the economy opens up again.
They designed some parklets and even the serving tray now used to Dutch Bros. drive-throughs.
Then Figure Plant came up with a mini dining pod called the Kose (pronounced KOOS-uh) named for the Norwegian word for cozy. It has that Scandinavian cachet of hygge (Danish and Norwegian for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality) and loyly (Finnish for sauna). The Kose pods fit one picnic table, which can seat six.
The structure is translucent corrugated plastic over a tubular steel frame with a powder coat finish. The Coroplast plastic, commonly used in plant nurseries, lets in light while protecting privacy, and the arch shape helps with wind resistance. The pods sit on wooden decking and there is a plastic railing along the street side to separate people from cars, and from which hang a string of solar powered LED Edison bulbs.
There are Koses currently at Po'shines and Parkside in Kenton (close to the Figure Plant building, which is near Paul Bunyan), one at an herb retailer called Clary Sage on Alberta Street, and one at Arch Bridge Tap House in Oregon City.
More are on the way.
Fredrickson said that, like any job, meeting the client's needs was essential. In this case the client is both the restaurant and the municipality. For instance, the city manager of Astoria is interested in having Koses on his streets, but he pointed out that structures have to be rated to withstand 125 mph gusts of wind. In Portland, the Transportation Bureau has a string of rules aimed at protecting diners, pedestrians and drivers. (See sidebar)
For example, power cables must be strung at least 10 feet off the ground, or hidden under plastic sleeves called ramps. Heaters are optional but most diners expect them. At Figure Plant, they offer square propane heaters that sit on the table, more commonly used by ice fishermen.
The Kose sells for $1,300 each. Fredrickson said he was inspired by seeing pictures of people dining in greenhouses on the streets of Amsterdam. However, greenhouses run thousands of dollars. He knew restaurants are short of money and are in survival mode, so they are caught between solid structures they can't afford and flimsy tents and shade structures.
"We're competing against a $200 easy-up tent," he said, while inside a Kose at the Parkside Pub at 2135 N. Willis Blvd. in Kenton. "I thought the program was going to force restaurant owners to either use a lousy, easy-up tent made in China, bought at Costco, destroyed in the wind and throw it in the landfill, rinse and repeat. And you have to take them down every night in the event of high winds."
He added, "Restaurants are not sitting on a pile of cash, so we have priced these such that they go from manufacturer to end user direct. There's no margin for wholesale."
Easy-ups are 10 feet tall instead of the allowed maximum seven feet. PBOT also has a rule that the rain or shade structures cannot be bolted into the ground, so they can be moved for street sweeping or fire engine access. Nor can they be secured with ropes and sandbags, although many of the jerry-built streets seats around Portland do just that.
Coming this summer…
Figure Plant's Fredrickson said of his Koses, "They could use them beyond this winter for shade structures in the summertime, depending on the state of the pandemic, if we are still needing to isolate diners from each other."
In an ideal world, the shelters could survive the pandemic. PBOT spokesperson Hannah Schafer said the agency is interested in keeping the street seats idea going, but is still in discussion with other agencies to see if it is possible to fund it. She notes that, while Street Seats permits used to cost money, today's Healthy Business ones are free.
"Everyone's in survival mode and we recognize that our goal is to support those businesses that we can," Schafer said. There also are street plazas, such as on Northwest 13th Avenue between Hoyt and Glisan Streets, where a whole block has become pedestrian and has a large tent for dining.
Figure Plant is used to taking a client's idea — anything from a napkin sketch to a CAD file — and working through the design process to finished product.
"When we first started working on our pivot and helping local restaurants in an emergency kind of crisis setting, it felt oddly familiar to us," Fredrickson said. "In the event industry, that it's very much kind of crisis level energy, because the timelines are extremely short. The design and fabrication demands are very high. So, we were like, yeah, we can do this."
This too shall pass. One day the big branding work will come back, he said. Hollywood. Big tech. Big sneakers.
"We said let's just find a way that we can apply our knowledge, expertise, facility and people, to helping others," he said. "Financially, it's a bridge to tomorrow."
Figure Plant8411 N Denver Ave.
PHONE: 503 289-2070
PBOT's rules for getting a street seating permit are complex.
Many businesses will look to provide heat, more lighting, or generally shield their customers or merchandise from rain or harsher weather these next few months. Here are important conditions on your permit to keep in mind:
- You must keep 6 feet of sidewalk space clear for pedestrians at all times.
- You must keep cords for lighting or electricity at least 10 feet above the sidewalk or, if on the sidewalk, under ADA-compliant cord-protector ramps.
- Heaters must comply with requirements from the Fire Marshal's Office.
- You may have temporary tents and canopies next to buildings if you keep the 6-foot pedestrian through-zone clear.
- You may have freestanding tents in some parking spaces, but these will not be allowed within 50 feet of intersections for safety and visibility reasons. You must request an exemption to this rule. Portland Fire & Rescue's Fire Marshal's Office also has released guidance on tents and other safety considerations for businesses.
- You may not attach equipment to any utility pole, light pole, street sign, other infrastructure, or to the surface of the street or sidewalk.
- You must secure or remove your equipment as necessary during severe weather events such as wind, ice, or snow.
Source: PBOT's Healthy Business Program
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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