When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, restaurants across metro Atlanta faced a crushing dilemma. How could they serve customers and stay in business while indoor dining was off limits or severely restricted?

Some savvy eateries found a solution in an unlikely place: the parking lot. They moved tables to the asphalt, erected umbrellas, tents, and large canopies, and even set up heating lamps to keep patrons warm during the winter.

The owners of El Zarape, a Mexican restaurant in Roswell, took over four parking spaces out front, using the newfound square footage to add about eight tables – socially distanced of course – seating a total of 32 people. They even found room for a live music stage.

Umbrella tables in the parking lot of El Zarape restaurant in Roswell.
El Zarape restaurant in Roswell converted four parking spaces to a spacious outdoor dining destination.

Sales and revenues are up, and no one’s complained about the lost parking spaces, said Martha Guevara, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Eusebio.

“People love it! People love eating outside when the weather is nice,” she said.

Urban planners often point out how much space is taken up by parking. The typical parking space measures about 180 square feet. When you add in the space needed to back into and out of a space, the figure rises to about 288 square feet – about the size of a small studio apartment, as Streetsblog put it. By some estimates, there are as many as eight parking spaces for each vehicle in the U.S.

A region-wide trend

Diners at Brick Store Pub in Decatur sitting at outdoor tables in a former parking lot.
Brick Store Pub in Decatur transformed a back parking lot into a cozy outdoor dining area.

El Zarape is far from alone. In downtown Decatur, the Marlay, a popular Irish pub, built a large, covered dining space in what used to be a handful of parking spaces, creating a festive beer-garden atmosphere. The nearby Brick Store Pub turned a small rear parking area into a cozy place for al fresco dining.

Karen Bremer, president and CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association, said outdoor dining was a “survival mechanism” for many restaurants, especially during the early days of the pandemic.

A key challenge: making the shift permanent

The City of Brookhaven helped pioneer the movement locally, passing a temporary ordinance allowing restaurants to utilize parking spaces and other outdoor areas for dining. It’s proved wildly popular with the public and helped restaurants survive the pandemic, said Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.

Diners at The Marlay in Decatur sitting at covered outdoor dining area.
The Marlay in Decatur turned parking spots into a covered dining area.

The city formed a task force to explore what policy or regulatory changes might be needed to keep the newfound outdoor dining options in his North DeKalb County city.

“What regulations do we need? How much parking do you really need?” he said. “We’re trying to think differently.”

GRA’s Bremer said it’s too soon to know how many restaurants will keep the new outdoor dining spaces. She noted that the City of Savannah recently ended its “parklet” dining program, though the city is working on a permanent plan that would let restaurants pay to use the parking spaces.

El Zarape in Roswell is also considering making their changes permanent. That’s fine for diners like Taylor and Shana Kerr of Roswell, who say they love the creativity shown by El Zarape.

“This is a highly walkable area, so it makes sense to offer more outdoor seating,” said Shana Kerr. “The outdoor space is great, we always try to grab a table outside when the weather is nice.”

What’s Next ATL, produced by the Atlanta Regional Commission, is a community resource that explores how metro Atlanta is growing and changing, and how the region is addressing its most pressing challenges.