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In Small Towns, Outdoor Dining Is Not On The Menu - Virus Or No Virus

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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Robert Huffman and Carley Englander opened East Frank Superette & Kitchen in downtown Monroe. They said customers at first didn't embrace their outdoor eating space.

For years, Toscana in upscale SouthPark has seated more people outside than inside.

The restaurant general manager, Chafik Elmaghri, says that’s what his customers have always wanted - even before the coronavirus.

“They’ve been to all over Europe – Italy, Barcelona, France,” he said. “They just all call at the last minute. Can I have outside seating? Can I have outside seating?”

But travel 30 miles to Marshville in Union County, at the Wagon Wheel restaurant. It’s a block off U.S. 74.

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
At the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Marshville, there's never been outdoor seating.

The Wagon Wheel has plenty of space for outdoor tables. But waitress Jocelyn Parhum says that at her restaurant and others, people aren’t interested.

“There’s not outdoor seating,” she said laughing.

She said it’s because of their customers.

“They are construction workers, they are laborers,” she said.

And she said many of the people eating at the Wagon Wheel are older and are simply used to eating indoors.

Fellow waitress Jenn White agrees.

“We got chicken plants,” she said. “We got places like that out here which is what makes Marshville. That’s what they do. They are always walking around, running. In Charlotte, everybody’s sitting at a desk in front of a computer. So they probably want to sit outside and enjoy the outside. Whereas here, everyone wants to come inside and enjoy the air conditioner, the heat.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper and Health Secretary Mandy Cohen have said eating outside at restaurants is safer than dining indoors.

That’s been an easy sell in places like Charlotte, where people have been dining outdoors for years – even at casual pizza places in strip malls. But in many small towns – like Wadesboro, Lumberton and Gibsonville - outdoor eating is just not part of the restaurant culture.

Local historian Tom Hanchett says it wasn’t always that way in the city. When air conditioning came on-line in the 1950s, people wanted to enjoy that new technology.

“So that when I was growing up in the 1960s and even into the 1980s, the notion of eating outside was - do you want to do that?” he said. “You might eat in your car at the drive-in, you might at a lunch counter at Tanner’s which was an uptown lunch counter stand-up place. Eating outside? Who would want to do that?”

That changed in the 1990s.

Hanchett said lore has it that former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl and former mayor Harvey Gantt helped push people outdoors when building Transamerica Square on North Tryon Street. That’s a 10-story office building - once home to Rock Bottom Brewery - that has plenty of outdoor space, including an interior garden.

McColl said he asked Gantt to make the city more cosmopolitan, making it easier to hire bankers from bigger cities.

“And I was trying to attract people who were coming from New York, from San Francisco, London or Hong Kong,” McColl said. “And we needed to bring the center city to life. And to do that we needed to have people on the street.”

Gantt, an architect, designed the building a few years after leaving the mayor’s office.

“We thought of Tryon Street as being one of the great streets in Europe, like the Champs-Élysées in Paris,” Gantt said.

Hanchett says that probably helped outdoor dining spread.

Has Gantt noticed that outdoor dining is rare in rural towns?

“You know, I hadn’t thought about it that much, but yeah,” he said. “I’ve spent some time in the smaller towns in this state. Just three weeks ago, we were in the mountains and went to three or four places and none of them had any opportunity for outdoor seating.”

Halfway between Marshville and Charlotte is Monroe. That’s where Robert Huffman and Carley Englander helped open East Frank Superette and Kitchen, a hybrid sandwich store, convenience store, and bar that’s downtown.

They are from Charlotte and were surprised that more people in Union County didn’t dine outside.

“It was very weird experiencing the indoor seating craze here,” Englander said.

They opened in 2019 and remodeled the store to have outdoor seating – even before the pandemic. But their street-facing outdoor seating wasn’t appreciated at first.

“We spent all this time on it, making it handicapped accessible and no one used it,” Huffman said. “It finally caught on, but it took a while.”

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