Located 40 miles north of San Francisco, Calif., at the southern edge of Sonoma County, the city of Petaluma offers a unique blend of small-town charm and urban chic within a landscape that includes rolling hills and the Petaluma River. At the heart of the Petaluma experience are locally owned restaurants and shops whose specialty products and services appeal to the City’s 60,000 residents as well as the thousands of tourists and locals who visit Petaluma each year.
In addition to serving as a hub for social interactions and culture, these businesses contribute significantly to Petaluma’s economy both through direct sales tax (approx. $1 million in 2019) and indirectly through their support of our tourism sector ($3.5 million in sales tax revenue) and local food and beverage manufacturers. They also reflect Petaluma’s diversity, with Latinx and Asian American communities represented in the ownership and employee population.
When the state shelter-in-place was announced in March 2020, the City recognized that the valuable social, cultural, and economic capital built by restaurants and retailers over decades could be destroyed by a shutdown that lasted more than a week or two. The City wanted and needed to help these businesses survive the pandemic. The challenge was doing this with limited financial and staff resources, in a situation with many unknowns.
Outreach and Support
When shelter-in-place began, we knew we had to act quickly, and strategically, to help our local businesses survive. Our team sprang into action, developing multi-faceted plans and programs at record speed to offer moral and financial support.
As a first step, the City launched an outreach and education program to help businesses navigate the restrictions and access federal relief programs. City staff from multiple departments called and emailed all businesses within the City limits, including restaurants and retailers, to offer support and referrals to resources. Within a month, the City had funded a $300,000 loan program offering 0% interest loans to help small businesses offset Covid-related losses or fund Covid-related expenses, such as PPE.
By mid-April, with a prolonged shelter-in-place on the horizon and online sales the new reality, the City partnered with the Petaluma Downtown Association and Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce to launch ShopPetaluma.com, an online directory where businesses could market their products, announce specials, and list hours of operation.
The City took the lead in creating the website, working closely with our partners for input as we provided the platform, design, development, and free product photography sessions for participating businesses. We reached out to businesses for contact information, hours of operation, links to their website or social media, and a description of services and worked closely with them to keep information up to date through the many changes brought on by the pandemic.
Once the site was ready, the City and its partner organizations promoted it through social media channels, online and print ads, and media outreach. The ShopPetaluma site offered a unified look and feel to support City branding efforts while reflecting the unique qualities of each participating business. The campaign also included webinars to help business owners enhance their online presence and make the most of the site.
A gift card program was added to the campaign just in time for the 2020 holiday shopping season and our business owners appreciated the efforts to keep shopping dollars local. To date, more than 700 gift cards have been purchased totaling over $26,000. These gift cards can be redeemed at one of the 65 participating shops, restaurants, and service providers around town, offering Petaluma residents and visitors a convenient, flexible way to shop and support local.
ShopPetaluma offered an immediate boost to its participants’ marketing efforts and bottom line. For the City, the real value of ShopPetaluma was in saving businesses that took decades to build and would not be easily replaced.
As the state inched toward a modified reopening, the City recognized the next challenge facing businesses: with indoor seating reduced or restricted altogether, restaurants would need to set up operations outdoors in places typically designed for other uses.
After conducting a survey to assess need and community sentiment, the City launched a special temporary permit program, Free Range. A nod to our city’s agricultural roots, Free Range would allow businesses to spread their wings and operate on sidewalks, streets, parking spots, and other spaces in the public right of way or on private property.
Staff from departments typically involved in development review – Public Works, Police, Fire Prevention, Building, Planning, and Economic Development – were assigned to the Free Range team, with direction from the City Manager to be thorough and ensure safety while also working to get businesses up and running as quickly as possible.
The program was promoted through the City’s online channels and the local newspaper, drawing inquiries from a wide range of businesses while educating the public on challenges faced by local businesses and encouraging support.
Businesses were required to submit applications for review by the Free Range team. The City offered further support by waiving all fees and providing expedited review through a multi-department team that met twice weekly. Often, Free Range team members met onsite with merchants to identify suitable spaces, troubleshoot obstacles and brainstorm solutions, draft the site plan, and gain support from property owners and neighbors.
The City ensured safe outdoor operations by purchasing or renting orange traffic barriers for businesses operating in the public right of way. In early 2021, the City installed tents to help businesses continue to operate outdoors despite cold or rainy weather.
A total of 58 businesses received Free Range permits; of those, 50 businesses participated in the tent program, and 4 businesses built “parklets” funded by restaurant owners and/or Creative Sonoma’s Creative Reopening grant. Though originally designed for restaurants, Free Range was open to businesses in other sectors; as the closure went on, owners of hair salons, nail salons, dance studios, and fitness studios participated in the program.
David & Maria Beatriz found the process of adding outdoor seating easy at their Petaluma Boulevard North parking lot. “They (the City) met with us the day after we submitted our application, measured the parking lot, and recommended the best configuration for the additional tables,” says David. “We had the permit the next day.”
Restauranteur Joel Padilla echoed those sentiments. Several outdoor tables were added to the sidewalk area outside the main entrance of the restaurant, allowing patrons to enjoy their meal at a safe social distance and even bring the family dog. “People seem to feel more at ease outdoors these days,” noted Joel, whose sidewalk cafe tables were all full on the day we visited. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Maria Elena Hipolito and Chef Dennis Hernandez were able to add ten tables along the riverfront at the rear of their restaurant. In business for 23 years, they have experienced many ups and downs—but never anything like the Covid19 pandemic. “The City was very helpful, and the process was quick,” says Hipolito. “We really appreciate that the City was on top of helping us figure things out as we get back to business.”
The program had a ripple effect of positive results. Each business brought back 2 to 10 employees to staff their outdoor operations, resulting in approximately 120 to 650 jobs retained. With onsite dining added to their to-go business, restaurants were able to serve more customers in total and sell more of the high profit margin items (such as alcohol, appetizers, and desserts) that diners order more often when dining onsite vs. taking to-go; this helped to stabilize businesses and reduce restaurant closures. More customers for restaurants meant more sales to restaurants for farms and specialty food/beverage manufacturers located in Petaluma.
Community members and visitors could once again enjoy the Petaluma experience, while restaurant owners and workers could do what they do best: feed the body and nourish the soul of our community.
The effect on the City as an organization was also notable. Several staff had the opportunity to work with each other and/or businesses, laying the foundation for improved service to the community and job satisfaction. Free Range also presented an opportunity for the City to gauge community acceptance to and develop best practices for permanent parklets and street closures two programs community have requested in the past.