Philadelphia allows for restaurant and café owners to operate a sidewalk café, adding to the ambiance and neighborhood appeal that has allowed the city to emerge as a city of culinary excellence. Eateries outside of the Center City District, portions of Ridge Avenue, Passyunk Avenue, Broad Street, Main Street, 9th Street, and Germantown Avenue, must get approval from the City Council in order to operate a sidewalk café.
Starting the Process
Opening a sidewalk café is more than placing a few tables and chairs outside; the process requires some patience, persistence, and determination. Since sidewalk cafes operate within the public realm, multiple city agencies need to review and approve proposed layouts for compliance on multiple levels. Adding to the complexity of a sidewalk café, currently only certain areas of the city (see map) are allowed to operate a sidewalk café. Otherwise, a special ordinance through Philadelphia City Council needs to be introduced and voted on before the process can continue. The following encompasses the typical process to successfully obtain your sidewalk café permit.
Designing Your Sidewalk Café
In order to maintain a safe streetscape for pedestrians, the regulations dictating the size, location, and assorted restrictions are listed in the Philadelphia Code. Engaging a design professional who has familiarity with all of the requirements will help streamline the process and ultimately help maximize your outside seating. Of course, the best designs always start with lots of input from the proprietor or primary operator of the café, so it’s best to put a lot of thought into what the space will look like and what unique details it will feature.
After the best layout gets designed and approved by you, a site plan needs to be drafted by a design professional licensed in Pennsylvania. Once the site plan (also known as a plot plan) is finished, the next step involves the Streets Department.
Prerequisite 1: Streets Department Review
The first prerequisite for a sidewalk café begins with the Philadelphia Streets Department, specifically the ROW (Right of Way) Unit, in order to determine the feasibility and compliance of the proposed encroachment. A submission of physical drawings, as well as a Streets Review Application and Streets Checklist 4, will need to be submitted and reviewed. Typical review time for this step in the process lasts up to 20 business days, but review times can vary.
After the initial review, the design will either be approved or denied with specific items to fix before resubmission.
After the Streets Department approves the sidewalk café design, one of two processes happen:
- Inside the allowable area, the Streets Department will coordinate with the Law Department to draft a Sidewalk Cafe Agreement that needs to be signed before the process can continue.
- Outside the allowable area, the Streets Department will coordinate with the Law Department to draft an ordinance that will need to be introduced by the City Council Representative.
Prerequisite 2: City Council and The Mayor
When a sidewalk café sits outside of the allowable area, an ordinance from City Council needs to be obtained in order to continue with the process. If there are no objections to the proposed café, a draft gets introduced, sent to committee, then finally voted upon in general session. An ordinance fee, listed on the ordinance itself (typically $200) needs to be paid before the bill gets sent to the mayor to sign into law.
Once the ordinance passes and gets signed into law, for those outside the allowable area, the process returns to the Streets Department for a second approval. Since the plans have already been approved, this review can be completed over the counter and will result in a stamp placed on the final drawings and approval signature on the L&I Sidewalk Application.
Prerequisite 3: Law Department Agreement
Upon final approval from the Streets Department, an agreement gets drafted and needs to be signed by the applicant. In this agreement, a bond amount gets determined, if necessary. Every agreement is different, and bond amounts may vary depending on location, size, and when it is submitted.
Prerequisite 4: Supporting Documentation
Lastly, the information needed to fulfill the requirements to finally submit for the actual permit are Certificate of Liability Insurance, Liquor License (if you intend on serving alcohol), bond, and a notarized letter of the property owner’s consent.
L&I Review and Permitting
The last part of the process takes us to the Municipal Services Building at the Licenses and Inspections section of the concourse. If the L&I Sidewalk Application is complete with every preceding item approved, and all documentation is in hand the sidewalk café license can be obtained over the counter.
Throughout this process, the city may send out inspectors to verify the site conditions, as well as to verify compliance. If you receive a violation, time may be of the essence.
Making The Process Easier
Given the current processes, the lack of standardization is a glaring issue for hundreds if not thousands of restaurant, bar, and café owners across the city. As Philadelphia benefits from a renewed focus on beautification and greater culinary jewels in every neighborhood, simplifying the process will ensure continued success for all types of businesses in the city.
There are two avenues we hope the city takes to remedy the issue:
- Extend the standards by which restaurant and cafes can operate in the Center City district to the entire city.
- Draft a more encompassing form of the code that accounts for other major thoroughfares throughout the city, allowing for more outdoor seating in South Philly, The Northeast, Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy, Fishtown, Northern Liberties, and other neighborhoods.
For restaurateurs, proprietors, and owner/operators, a sidewalk café is an alluring opportunity. For those who have considered opening an establishment that features outdoor seating, the benefits to the business are obvious—a fantastic draw for customers, and a chance to display the culinary quality of their dishes in the best way possible, through sight and smell.
Though the process for obtaining a license for a sidewalk café adds a few extra steps to standard opening or reopening of a restaurant, the benefits often outweigh the extra hours spent.