A downtown Mitchell business has found a creative solution to combat COVID-19, while providing customers with the option to enjoy sweet treats from the confines of a sidewalk patio.

With the increase of shoppers flocking into 2nd & Lawler Co. looking to satisfy their sweet tooth, dining space is at times limited. Instead of adding more seating inside, owner Christie Gunkel used the street-side frontage as a way to accommodate outside the walls of her candy and toy store.

“This was a great way for us to attract more customers, because we are kind of tucked in the corner and some people don’t know we have a store here,” Gunkel said, who said the feature was installed last week. “We have more and more people coming in looking to eat a lunch or snack, so the patio has given us much needed space for people to sit down and eat.”

The 8-by-24 foot patio that sits along the sidewalk in front of the business has already been a hit, as Gunkel said many customers are choosing to enjoy their ice cream and frozen yogurt from the patio space when seating is available inside. Since opening 2nd & Lawler in September 2019, Gunkel has offered a selection of children's toys, along with sandwiches and soups.

“The idea also came from a recent trip to a city in Minnesota, where we saw a lot of restaurants and stores with patios like this next to the sidewalk. They were all pretty full, so it was obvious people liked the idea,” she said. “We have had a lot of people using it already, and you can see how many people prefer to eat outside.”

Considering the precautions related to COVID-19, the patio provides additional space for customers to practice social distancing, which was an added benefit of the outdoor feature, Gunkel said.

For City Councilman Jeff Smith, the patio idea is another way for businesses to offer more safety measures in the face of coronavirus, while still being able to operate like usual. Smith was joined by all of his fellow City Council members in supporting the patio concept, which was unanimously approved by the council during the July 6 meeting.

“I think this a great opportunity to social distance for customers who aren’t comfortable with coming inside to eat, and I see it as a nice trade-off to give up some parking space for your own business to provide an outside area,” Smith said Wednesday.

City requirements for outdoor feature

According to Mitchell Public Works Director Kyle Croce, several requirements had to be met with the addition of the patio, which includes leaving the sidewalk open to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility for pedestrians and leaving enough space for vehicles traveling on the two-way traffic street the patio sits next to. The width of the patio stretches 8 feet from the sidewalk into Second Avenue, a foot under the 9 foot requirement the city permits for outdoor features that are going to be constructed in parking spaces along sidewalks. Croce said 9 feet was determined as the maximum width because it matches the width of a parked vehicle.

While the patio has been met with support from customers, city officials and the council, Gunkel noted some community members have criticized the feature. Specifically, Gunkel said the criticism she has discovered through social media posts centers around the patio stretching into the street.

However, Gunkel emphasized the dimensions of the patio comply with city code and the placement of reflective tape on the corner of the outdoor space makes it visible to nearby drivers. To make for an aesthetically pleasing look, Gunkel has placed plants and foliage around the tables set up in the patio.

“It is a unique request, and we haven’t really had these in the past. It meets the requirements of not impeding the storm drainage and the ADA walkway on the sidewalk,” Croce said.

Because the patio blocks off parking spaces in front of 2nd & Lawler, Gunkel had to request a temporary public parking space closure to construct the wooden patio area. The time table for the patio set up extends from now until mid-October, which is when 2nd & Lawler will disassemble the patio to allow for snow removal.

“We wanted to make this look good and blend in with the store,” Gunkel said. “We also added a bike rack for the bikers to have a spot to park, so it is coming along nice.”

Considering the virus is still spreading in the community, Smith encouraged more businesses to implement similar outdoor features.

“We invite other businesses to come forward and ask for the same opportunity, and we want to do everything in our power to help businesses, especially in this time of uncertainty,” Smith said.