With outdoor operations all the rage under COVID, will New Bohemia Brewing Company’s struggles be shared by others?
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First, it was the cancellation of the popular barbecue. Then, all live music, including Reggae Happy Hour Fridays, stopped. A few days later, the outdoor lights and sun shades in the beer garden had to go. Not long after, a late May notice came that Pleasure Point’s New Bohemia Brewing Co., a seven-year-old brewery specializing in American takes on classic Czech beer styles, wouldn’t open until 4 p.m. the next day because the brewing team needed to can inside the brewery — workers were no longer able to can its Pilsner Soquel, The Hook IPAs and Capitola Kolsch in the parking lot, as they had done for months.
The series of announcements on the neighborhood brewery’s Instagram and Facebook pages drew concerned comments from customers. What was going on?
Owner Dan Satterthwaite told Lookout that the brewery received a string of anonymous complaints starting in early May targeting the outdoor areas and food service around the brewery, which had been built up over the course of the pandemic due to COVID restrictions on indoor sales. Santa Cruz County then told him to cease these operations until he came into compliance, resulting in significant financial stress to New Bohemia.
For more than a year, barbecue and an expanded beer garden drew customers to New Bohemia and allowed the locally owned business to weather the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Now, while New Bohemia’s beer garden remains open, it has been effectively stripped of lights, music, shade and food. Canning operations now must take place inside the brewery, which displaces customers.
Satterthwaite believed the additions, including an outdoor kitchen with a barbecue and lights in the beer garden, to be in compliance with county regulations, but says the complaints exposed fine print in the county permitting. For example, one complaint alleges that New Bohemia can’t can beer in its back parking lot because it’s an unpermitted event. “I never considered it an event,” Satterthwaite said. “I considered it part of my operations.” Still, he said he believes the county would not have sought him out had these specific complaints not been made.
When asked if he feels he’s being targeted, Satterthwaite says he doesn’t want to speculate on where the complaints are coming from, and is choosing instead to work with the county to come into compliance: “We’re not going to point fingers or play any mean games. I don’t think that’s right. We’re going to take the higher ground and take care of the issues as they come.”
The county approached Satterthwaite about the violations after complaints were filed. In cases like that of New Bohemia Brewing, the county’s code compliance team works with the business owner to resolve the issues, says Lezanne Jeffs, a principal planner in charge of development review. The brewery falls under the jurisdiction of the county because, although New Bohemia appears to be in Capitola, it’s not — it lies just on the other side of the tracks in unincorporated Santa Cruz
New Bohemia has suffered financially. With barbecue operations halted, Satterthwaite had to let his kitchen staff go. With no music, limited food and a downsized beer garden with no lights or shade, he estimates the complaints have already cost him at least $25,000 in lost sales in the past month, plus lost tips for his remaining staff. It’s frustrating, he says, because New Bohemia’s business grew 100% from 2020 to 2021 as a result of the additions, expanded canning operations and support from the community.
Satterthwaite says he is working to address the issues and hopes to bring barbecue and live music back, reinstall the lights and shade in the beer garden and rehire his staff as long as it’s financially possible and feasible to do so.
Other breweries, bars and restaurants in the county might consider what the fate will be for their own pandemic-era dining additions. Locally, outdoor dining is being extended, but nuances such as those New Bohemia is facing could now become a wider issue as businesses seek to make temporary structures permanent
In 2020, temporary ordinances went into effect to allow parklets, outdoor dining areas and other outdoor improvements to be built. Now, communities are in the process of deciding whether to create permanent solutions once those temporary ordinances expire.
The city of Capitola has extended its temporary ordinance for outdoor dining areas through Sept. 18 — one week after the Capitola Art & Wine Festival. A long-term ordinance that would create a legal avenue for parklets and other structures to become permanent has worked its way through city processes and is set to be reviewed by the California Coastal Commission on June 10.
Santa Cruz enacted a permanent parklet program in March, which offers pre-approved design models and guidelines to streamline approval for outdoor dining areas, and extended the temporary parklet program through the end of the year.
Watsonville’s temporary parklet program offers permits for one year, after which time the business can seek an extension. Currently, there isn’t a discussion to make the permit permanent, possibly because there is only one parklet in the city of Watsonville — at Slice Project on Main Street.
The county of Santa Cruz extended temporary outdoor dining permits for businesses through the end of June, and is in the process of extending them through Oct. 31, 2023. Jeffs says the county is reaching out to each business with a temporary use permit to make sure extensions are filed if they want them.
The county is also in the process of updating the sustainability requirements for much of its infrastructure, including parklets and outdoor dining areas. New use permits would need to follow these new guidelines.
“In general, we support parklets and outdoor dining areas,” Jeffs said. “Most businesses, although not all, are keeping them.”
Despite the outdoor issues, Satterthwaite says New Bohemia’s beer has never been better and there’s still plenty to enjoy. A short menu offers sausages on pretzel rolls and giant pretzels, and Satterthwaite hopes to bring in food trucks in the interim. Ultimately, he wants to get things back to where they were before, if possible: “We want to continue, we are just having this unfortunate issue.”