Mancini requests Fenwick's okay on patio

Fenwick Island doesn’t currently allow its restaurants to serve alcohol on outdoor patios, but if restaurateur Gabbie Mancini has anything to say about it, Mancini’s Brick Oven Pizzeria & Restaurant will be the first in the town to do so.

Mancini appeared with his attorney, Joseph Raskauskas, at the Fenwick Island Town Council’s monthly “workshop without agenda” (WWA) on Saturday, Feb. 12, to put the idea before the six council members present for the meeting. (Council President Peter Frederick was absent.)

His reception didn’t hail resounding support for the idea, but it was positive enough that Mancini can still hope he might have such a patio open by time the 2005 summer season is in full swing.

Council Member Harry Haon did note that council members were prevented from taking any official action on the request at the WWA. The informal meetings are geared toward an exchange of ideas and dispense with parliamentary rules, as well as the option for any action by the council until subsequent formal meetings.

Raskauskas praised the WWA setting, saying it offered those in the town a greater opportunity for dialogue on just such ideas as his client was presenting.

The origin of Mancini’s request is simple: his restaurant is so popular during summer evenings that would-be diners are often left waiting in the parking lot until a table is available. Mancini said the parking lot had become a place to mingle during those busy times, and he wanted to serve his customers by offering them a more hospitable place to wait.

According to Mancini, the south side of the building offers just such a space — one he’d like to turn into an open-air patio, complete with tables and market umbrellas where the customers could relax with a drink while they wait. If they chose, he said, some diners could even enjoy their meals on the outdoor patio.

The south side of Mancini’s faces on the neighboring mattress store and a 60-foot-long block wall that is currently camouflaged only by a 5-foot-tall hedge that Mancini planted when he opened the restaurant.

If granted permission for his plans, Mancini said he would like to expand that existing area to 12 feet in width and 35 to 40 feet long. He would cover the ground only with stone, bringing in the tables and umbrellas, adding minimal lighting through Chinese-style lanterns and creating a curtain of potted trees to shield the area from the street (and control access).

That last element is a key for Mancini. He said he believes he is one of the few eating establishments in Fenwick Island with the ability to genuinely control the consumption of alcohol in an outdoor setting. The side patio would be accessible only from his location and not an open street, minimizing the possibility that any under-age drinkers could be provided with alcohol, he said.

“They’d have to climb through a steep ditch and the hedge in order to be given a drink,” Mancini said.

He noted that his plans were designed to have a low impact on the town — both in the immediate terms and the precedent such an allowance might set, saying, “I don’t think you would be opening the floodgates with an exception.”

He said he believed most other restaurants within town limits either don’t have the same numbers of overflow customers or equal ability to tightly control alcohol served outdoors on their properties. “Fenwick could be proud of this,” he said in describing the plan he envisioned while visiting Italy and its patio restaurants.

Mancini does need the cooperation of the town in order to proceed. In order to expand his state-issued liquor license to serve on the patio, he must first show that the town approves of the sales that would result.

That’s where things get a little sticky. His existing licensing (and the letter the town issued that resulted in that license) may or may not be sufficient to get the liquor board to permit sales on an outdoor patio. Ideally, he needs another letter from Fenwick Island officials giving the OK for the project.

As current town ordinances read, the town would likely need to pass an ordinance to allow Mancini to serve alcohol on the outdoor patio, and that process can take several months from committee to final passage. Mancini is up against the wall of impending summer business, though, with time needed to actually build the patio structure.

On the recommendation of council members, Raskauskas said he would pursue obtaining a letter of support from the town this week, in hopes that the state liquor board would accept statements of support for the business made in the past and the existing licensing to get the new license approval started and speed the process.

Mancini also has the option of appealing to the town’s Board of Adjustments the expected decision of town Building Official Patricia Schuchman that would deny him the patio use under existing ordinances. But the expectations for that option aren’t that bright.

Council Member Chris Clark noted that he had previously discussed such cases with Schuchman. Clark said the two had been seeking a business that would be able to do that kind of project in such a way as would satisfy a modified ordinance — a test case, of a sort.

“It’s been mentioned by a lot of people that they would like to sit outside and eat,” Clark noted.

Council Audrey Serio said she believed such accommodation would benefit the town and its business community by helping to encourage residents and visitors to walk to local restaurants and eat, rather than driving to establishments outside the town. That would mean better business, which would in turn keep such restaurants in the town for residents’ convenience and town benefit.

Serio said Schuchman had told her that she felt “her hands were tied” by the existing ordinance, and that she didn’t want them to be. “Someone has to come and bring this issue up, say, ‘I want to do this,’” Serio said.

Moves toward developing a new ordinance that would allow Mancini’s outdoor seating area and alcohol service were tempered at the WWA. Concerns were expressed about the hours in which the patio would be in use and any music, as well as the ability of patrons to smoke at the outdoor location.

Mancini said categorically that he did not want any smoking on the hoped-for patio. In answer to Council Member Martha Keller’s concern over music, Mancini said he was also opposed to having music in the outdoor location. He was just as emphatic that the hours of use for the location would be minimal.

“This is not something we want to do to have additional seating. This is just for a time when we are already full. In most cases, we would probably seat them inside the restaurant after 9 p.m.,” he said. And the restaurant closes at 10 p.m. in the summer.

Traffic through the front door would also be minimized by Mancini’s plan. Service from the restaurant to patio patrons would be through an existing fire door that he would convert to a one-way-opening glass door. There would be no service from the front, he said.

Mancini also noted that the nearest residential property to the patio area is well behind the neighboring mattress store, with homes offset from his restaurant’s location on the lot. That could lessen concerns about any noise generated by the patrons themselves.

Clark praised Mancini’s presentation, saying it was “very well put together,” with a “tasteful” concept for the patio. “We can put an ordinance together in a way to encourage” similar designs for any future requests, Clark said.

Serio agreed, saying, “The proposal is an excellent idea. It can be done tastefully. Instead of just looking at should we or shouldn’t we, we should be looking at how to do it.”

Council Member Vicki Carmean said her greatest concerns were over existing safety problems caused by the number of would-be diners lingering in the parking lot until their tables were available. However, Haon said he didn’t believe that would constitute reason for the town to speed through an ordinance change on the grounds of public safety concerns.

If work proceeds with an ordinance that would allow alcohol service on a patio such as the one Mancini proposes, Raskauskas noted that he would still need to go through a series of approvals from health, fire and building officials before the area could be opened for business.

He stressed that many potential concerns could be addressed before the final go-ahead for the use of that area, giving town officials and residents many opportunities to voice their concerns and allow for accommodation.

Clark noted that Mancini, as well as any supporting council member, would be well served to make a presentation before the council to get the ball moving on any ordinance change. That could come as soon as the planned council meeting on Friday, Feb. 25.