I'm writing this blog post outdoors, in a new coworking space at Optimism Brewing under the sky.
I thought I was going to be writing this blog post in the middle of the street—the street in the photo above, the very first official "cafe street" in the city. But there's a construction project on the opposite side of that street (just out of the frame, to the right), and on weekday mornings construction workers need access to the road for vehicles and machinery, so Optimism's street cafe won't open until 3 or 4 pm today. On Saturdays and Sundays, though, there's no construction, and it opens at noon.
I'm sitting in their patio beer garden instead, where they have recently added more tables, including the table I'm sitting at. Wanna see?
Those white vehicles will go away this afternoon, and Optimism will expand out into that road. The employee who seated me at 9:30 am apologized for the construction noise, but I love the activity, the banging around, the men in reflective trim. I feel like I'm watching a gigantic durational performance on a massive set.
It beats sitting at home. My apartment doesn't have a balcony or courtyard. And there's still plenty of construction noise when I'm in my apartment.
I'm drinking coffee in a thermos that I brought from home because Optimism doesn't mind if you do that (I thought for sure they were going to make me pour it out when I got here, but they didn't). I'm also drinking the endless sparkling water they offer here for free (my body is 70 percent sparkling water). If I want to get up and go get more coffee nearby, or a donut, or a snack from the grocery store, and bring it back here, they're fine with that.
In an interview with The Stranger yesterday, Gay Gilmore, who owns Optimism with her husband, said the earlier hours, the coworking option, and the cafe street are all examples of Optimism trying out new ideas in hopes they are going to be able to survive.
"Optimism, our business—we're doing 25 percent of what we usually do. It's a huge struggle. For everyone. Maybe not everyone is doing as horrible as we are, I have no idea," she said. "We're not surviving. We're losing money."
But she was happy when she got word from the city that Optimism's street-closure of Broadway Court was approved on July 31, the same day the free permits became available. In a city with such slow-moving bureaucracy, how is that possible? "They gave a temporary activation the day the permit became available because we were already in line. I first started talking to them about this on June 24."
Plus, Optimism had done it before: They have closed that street previously for a summer party each year. So they had practice wheeling their tables—which are on castors—out into the street for those events.
"They literally approved it at 4 pm and we were running outside to get the tables out." After all, it was a Friday. And how has business been in the middle of the street? "It's been fantastic. It really has. We are just so thrilled to have that many more tables outside. And luckily the weather has held up well."
And the reaction from customers? "People love being outside. Even though it's just a little side street, it feels pretty marvelous to be dining in the middle of the street. It's just a unique experience and it's going to be happening all around the city, and I think everyone should really relish this moment of being able to eat in the street."
Interestingly, Optimism had proposed to the city only a partial closure of the street for outdoor service, but the city responded by telling them to go bigger. "They actually wanted us to take up a greater portion of the street because they thought that would be safer than a smaller portion of the street that we had asked for."
Why is that safer?
"They were like: 'Look if a car is driving down your street and they don't notice immediately that the rest of the street is closed, if they just hit your barrier, they're going to need to turn around and get back out.' And our street is very narrow—one lane of driving and one lane of parking. So we have expanded. The city was like: 'Take up the entire block. We would prefer for there not to be a chance at all for a car to drive down this street and get stuck and not be able to turn around.'"
Because city and state bureaucracies are a gigantic rubber-band ball of red tape—a brewery has to get permits not just from the city but also the Liquor and Cannabis Board—it wasn't clear that a brewery, as opposed to a restaurant, was going to be allowed to operate in the middle of the street. But the entire industry lobbied the LCB for a rule change, and the LCB was "very amenable," Gilmore said. "They gave us a streamlined process to convert to a beer/wine restaurant license with the addition of food."
So now Optimism also offers snacks and sandwiches.
As for the coworking-space idea, it happened organically. "People were coming in at noon and opening laptops and nursing a beer while working. People were getting sick of working at home. And so you can now reserve a desk at Optimism, just like you could at WeWork, and you can come in the morning and work in a new place that isn't your apartment, and we toss in a free beer and also all the sparkling water you want."
I made a reservation online in advance this morning, thinking I wanted a coworking-space reservation, but the website did not allow me to book that same-day. (When you book one of those, for $15, you get a dedicated table for the whole day, in addition to the free beer.) So I made a regular table reservation instead, but when I got here I told them I wanted to set up my laptop and work, and that was just fine with them.
There are more electrical outlets inside, and the wi-fi is stronger inside, but I wanted to sit outside, and the wi-fi out here on the beer garden patio is plenty strong enough for me to write this blog post and upload photos.
"We're still in a rough place, and we still don't know," Gilmore said. "We have probably a month and a half of good weather, and then what? No one has the money to invest in umbrellas and heaters, and even if you have those things, not everyone wants to sit outside in cooler weather."
This interview with Gilmore took place yesterday around 4 pm. Gilmore said she had to get off the phone to go into Optimism and work a shift. "I'm going to go in and work a shift and pour some beer. That's where everyone is at right now. I'm worried for the fabric of our city. Our business doesn't have a right to survive. Businesses could fold and ours could be one of them. It's going to be a sad scene. I worry what Capitol Hill is going to look like in October and November. In those months, I don't know what's going to happen."
Also do you remember that they were one of the few businesses that opened up their restrooms to protesters during the early days of CHAZ/CHOP? Go support them.