A downtown restaurateur in Larkspur is pushing back on the city’s new monthly outdoor dining fee.
Gary Rulli, co-owner of the bakery-cafe-wine shop Emporio Rulli on Magnolia Avenue, said his business has offered outdoor seating for 35 years. The new fee system adopted by the city – which sets public-right-of-way leasing at $4 per square foot – is set to cost the business thousands, he said.
“It’s totally unreasonable,” said Rulli. “With a $10-per-person check average, it’s just not feasible.”
Emporio Rulli set up an outdoor parklet during the pandemic to augment outdoor seating options on the sidewalk and in its private outdoor alcove.
The restaurant removed its parklet, which took up three parking spaces, during a repaving project on Magnolia Avenue in 2022. He pulled in the tables and chairs from the sidewalk on Sunday, the day before the new rule went into effect.
Rulli argued that the new fee is burdensome. He said the cost to his business is $1,800 a month – which amounts to a more than $20,000 over the course of a year.
He said he and his wife also own a restaurant in San Francisco and a chocolate boutique in a terminal at San Francisco International Airport. In San Francisco, their restaurant pays $2,400 a year for outdoor dining, he said.
“I just really felt they weren’t looking into how this affects businesses,” Rulli said of Larkspur’s new fee. “It’s not like they came to us and said, ‘this is what our thought process is. How do you feel?’”
Dan Schwarz, city manager, said the council adopted a framework for the outdoor dining policy at a meeting in June of 2022, giving staff the ability to implement policy for the lease of public right of way by restaurants. The system applied to encroachment permits for any business using public space.
The fee schedule for the program allowed the public works department to set the cost per square foot at the prevailing market rate.
Generally, the system limited restaurants to no more than two parking spaces for parklets and set a cost of $4 per square foot for use of the parking spaces and sidewalks, Schwarz said. The $1,800 figure was not exactly correct because it was based on an initial request by the restaurant for three parking spaces worth of space.
“The city did not want this policy to be too jarring,” Schwarz said. “We have been working with each business with their unique circumstances.”
Outdoor dining has been the subject of much debate in Larkspur. The city established a temporary program in spring of 2021. With various extensions it lasted through the end of 2022. Like other municipalities in Marin, the parklets were developed to help struggling businesses and restaurants generate revenue when indoor gatherings was not allowed.
Many of the most popular outdoor dining parklets no longer remain. Now, parklets are also limited to Magnolia Avenue. One downtown restaurant, Restaurant Picco, leases about 150 square feet, for about $600 a month, Schwarz said.
Schwarz also added that a fee system and regulatory framework was not unique to Larkspur. Mill Valley and Novato had initiated their own outdoor dining costs and framework following the pandemic, he said.
“I’m hoping each business can find a solution that works for them,” Schwarz said.
Rulli said he plans to seek a fee waiver with the City Council. He hopes the city and the restaurant can come to an agreement, he said.
“I honestly think it’s going to work out. Sometimes you have to speak out,” Rulli said.
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