Parklets: A trader's story
In late 2021 Stephanos Karlos and wife Maria Neokosmidi invested $60,000 to build an attractive dining space in front of their adjacent café and restaurant businesses on Thompson Avenue, the bustling main street of Cowes, Phillip Island.
For two summers now they’ve been able to offer visiting holidaymakers the choice of an outdoor dining experience. On warm days families and friends gather early at large tables to wait for coffees and breakfast. In the evenings the space is used by diners or groups sipping cocktails at the couple’s restaurant, Fig & Olive.
The structure takes up a space formerly occupied by three on-street car parks, but Karlos and Neokosmidi have no regrets.
Karlos often now hires musicians for customers to enjoy some live background music. It all reminds him a bit of Europe, where he spent time working as a chef and where outdoor dining has long been embraced.
He thinks the $60,000 investment is paying off.
“I believe it has helped,” says Karlos. “It gives people an option to sit elsewhere. A lot of people love sitting outside and those who don’t come inside… We can fit the big groups easily now.”
The cheerful and inviting outside space is also attractive to potential customers walking past.
As Victorian communities emerged from the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 the State Government provided funding, via local councils, to help business owners begin trading outside.
Bass Coast, like many municipalities, offered this money up as grants and simplified the permit process for outdoor trading.
Initially Stephanos Karlos was not sure about converting parking spaces. His hesitation meant he missed out on a grant from Bass Coast to put toward his structure.
But further conversations with council staff and with Maria saw Karlos reconsidering. He decided to go all in. “I didn’t want to put up a cheap thing,” he explains. “I wanted to put up something beautiful.”
In December 2021 he opened Fig & Olive’s ‘cocktail and tapas lounge’. The space is also used by customers of the couple’s adjoining daytime café, Fork & Waffle. Sometimes, when the space is not busy, people passing by use it to sit and rest.
Parklets were initially a public health response to the pandemic, designed to assist hospitality businesses stay afloat by providing ventilated dining areas. But many Victorian traders have decided to keep them.
In New South Wales, the state government and City of Sydney experimented with giving over entire high streets in inner suburbs to outdoor trading and street parties. These governments repeated the Summer Streets program in 2022-23, citing many benefits.
Karlos says he is not missing the three car park spaces. “Our restaurant has six car spaces out the back if customers really need them, but they never ask us,” he says. “They must just walk here, or they find other places to park.”
Several other hospitality businesses in Bass Coast (including the above brewery in Cowes) have also held onto outdoor spaces while the council determines a long-term approach to dining parklets.
Karlos would love to see more outdoor trading in Bass Coast, a part of Victoria that relies heavily on tourism.
“It creates ambience,” he says. “It will help in the end, especially the overseas tourism.”
“There is a beautiful island in Greece, Kastelorizo where everyone walks everywhere,” he says. “Your hotel might be a 15-minute walk from the restaurants, but everyone is happy to walk."