Covered outdoor market would be a tasty addition to Athlone
Restaurant owners in Athlone have called for a covered outdoor market or food hub to be developed in the town, saying it would boost tourism by giving eateries and local producers a dedicated space in which to showcase their offerings.
The Government and Fáilte Ireland recently announced a €17 million scheme aimed at developing outdoor dining capacity nationwide.
The initiative is designed to help restaurants and hospitality businesses meet the costs of outdoor dining, and it also provides sums of €200,000 that can be claimed by each county council for the development of "permanent outdoor public dining spaces" in towns and cities.
Two Athlone restaurant owners, John Coffey of Thyme and Adam Lyons of Kin Khao Thai, both told the Westmeath Independent that a covered outdoor facility for a market or food stalls would be a major addition to the town.
"It's something Athlone really lacks. For a town of this size, it's a shame that there's no market facility, or farmers' market, that would run on a weekly basis," said John.
"If there was a way of getting something in place that restaurants and local food producers could use, it would be great. As with all of these things, it's about finding the right location and space for it.
"It could improve the overall look of the town and make it more inviting to tourists as well. You don't have to look too far to see how different towns have made their reputation out of this 'buzzy' dining experience that incorporates markets."
Adam Lyons said he would love to see "a permanent venue that could be used to feature food, restaurants, bars, entertainment under the one warm roof."
Just the other week, he had been reading about a facility of this kind, called Grazeland, which had opened in Melbourne.
"Now Athlone isn't Melbourne, but it would be something very attractive," said Adam.
On the issue of grants being offered for outdoor dining in general, John said that, while all support for the hospitality sector was welcome, he didn't regard outdoor dining at restaurants as sustainable in the long-term.
"The bottom line is that we haven't got weather that's conducive to outdoor dining," he said. "The other thing is space. Many restaurants are on a main thoroughfare. If places have an outdoor dining area to utilise, they've probably been utilising it already."
Adam said that, for many restaurants including Kin Khao, outdoor dining would not be a viable option.
"Space, neighbours, and planning would prevent many of us from moving dining outdoors. That said, I have been considering heaters and planters for a while and will be claiming a contribution," he said.
While Kin Khao has been open for take-away during the Level 5 restrictions, Thyme is one of the many restaurants that have not traded since December.
Asked about the reopening of restaurants in general, John said last week that he doesn't expect this to happen until July at the earliest.
"It costs an awful lot of money every time you open and close, so I hope that when we reopen this time we won't ever have to close again," he said.
"The key to all of this is the vaccines. Once there are enough people vaccinated, hopefully businesses will be able to reopen safely and comfortably.
"Obviously, we'll still have restrictions in place for a while, but it will be a safer way to operate. It could even be August before we reopen - it all depends on the vaccine rollout, what delays there are, and the supply of vaccines.
"Opening at Christmas time, and then having to close, was of no benefit, really. It probably cost a lot of businesses money in the long run. In hindsight, if we hadn't opened at Christmas we possibly could be getting ready to reopen now, but that's all neither here nor there at this stage."
The 'Outdoor Dining Enhancement Scheme' which was announced recently is due to be delivered in partnership by Fáilte Ireland and local authorities across the country.
When it was first mooted, in February, the scheme was expected to focus on just eight cities and towns, one of which was to be Athlone.
However, it was subsequently decided that it should be extended to all parts of the country.