RARITAN, NJ - The idea for an outdoor food court to help small businesses recover from the COVID-19 shutdown spawned a discussion for much broader possibilities in Raritan.

“On June 15, New Jersey restaurants could begin serving food outside," said Mayor Zachary Bray, “and we want to do everything possible to help.”

He gave Police Chief Raymond Nolte credit for proposing to clear the municipal parking lot on Thompson Street and use it as an outdoor food court that would allow people to purchase food from any of the borough restaurants and have a place to dine.

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Bray said he and members of the Economic Development Committees spoke with most of the restaurateurs in town.  Char has outdoor seating, Spain ’92 also has its own space, he said.

Espo’s at the moment is doing a tremendous takeout business, and DeLucia’s has an outdoor dining plan in place.  

“The area we were concerned about was near Uncle Vinny’s, Great Wall and Castillo Market,” he said. "There’s not too much outdoor room there.”

The plan would be to add lights and a big tent to the space, along with 19 tables. Quotes on the tent and lighting are not yet in, however engineering professional Shelly McGregor showed a mock-up of a design with eight tables for seating of four to six people, and 11 tables for two.

“There would be a 3-foot radius around each table,” she said, “so six feet distancing wouldn’t be a problem.”

Then, when the meeting was opened up to the public, ideas for a more comprehensive concept took shape.

Lucy Sandler, owner of House of Blooms, said she loves the idea of an outdoor food court. She suggested maybe other types of businesses could also benefit from a community-based space.

“From a local to a national scale, restaurants and small businesses have become indistinguishable,” she said, “but there are other small businesses in this town.”

Sandler suggested getting local liquor stores, vineyards or breweries involved to do tastings.  

“I could do a flower arranging workshop, maybe Candyland could do a demo and maybe the nail salons would want to do something,” she said. “There’s an opportunity here for lots of businesses to get involved.”

Kitchen 18 West/Catering Solutions owner Rebecca Hassouna praised the work of the EDC and its commitment to local businesses.

“It’s heartwarming,” she said.

Hassouna asked about the possibility of a weekly Main Street closing so that tables could be set up.

Bray said something along those lines had been discussed, but not with that timeline.

“Closing once a week, or even bi-weekly, and having a restaurant event on Main Street is definitely something we can look in to and explore,” he said.

Christine Torres, a member of the EDC, assured everyone that borough businesses are “very, very excited about the potential of having a community dining area. It would be welcomed.”

Councilman Paul Giraldi suggested putting it out there to the public, posting it  in on Facebook or doing a survey to see if there’s any interest.

Torres assured him that if the general public is asked, there will be a big response.

“The EDC has gotten very positive feedback from the public,” she said.

Councilwoman Joyce Melitsky said she likes the concept, but questioned who would be responsible for cleaning and maintaining the area.

“That is definitely the big question here,” the mayor said.