Thursday, September 8, 2016

The City Spot Café: Sidewalk Seating and Doggy Dining Companions

The “scoop” on sidewalk dining, served up by the LMC Research and Information Service team.

Definition: “Outdoor food and beverage service establishments”  defined as “an outdoor area used as, maintained as, advertised as, or held out as an operation that prepares, serves, or otherwise provides food or beverages or both for human consumption,” oftentimes just means tables and chairs on the sidewalk outside a restaurant or eatery.

Plain-language explanation:  Even though cities don’t regulate food handling, cities do have a duty to maintain safe sidewalks. Tables, chairs, dogs, or other obstructions on sidewalks outside of restaurants or ice cream parlors can pose risks to pedestrians, which, if resulting in injuries, can lead to lawsuits against cities.

 In light of the demand for outside dining, many city ordinances allow any person wanting to place an obstruction on a sidewalk, like tables and chairs, to request permission to do so by getting a conditional use permit for that specific use of the sidewalk. And, if cities want to provide food and beverage establishments with the option of welcoming patrons’ dogs in outside dining areas, cities should adopt an ordinance allowing this option. Differing from your average ordinance, the doggy companion ordinance must comply with the strict requirements and permitting scheme set forth in state law. Cities that want to adopt ordinances either regulating obstructions in sidewalks or allowing doggy companions at outside eating areas or both should consult with their city attorneys. Keep in mind, the ordinances discussed in this article do not address additional licensing requirements for establishments that want to serve liquor or regulate smoking in its outside dining area.

In the News: In April of this year, news of the passage of New York’s “Dining with Dogs” bill became a top story on national news outlets. This bill now allows dogs to accompany their responsible humans to outdoor cafés. Minnesota, ahead of the curve, passed a similar bill in 2008. If fact, one website ( keeps a listing of over 100 dog-friendly venues in the Twin Cities area.

Pros: In recent years, cities have enjoyed a surge in restaurants that offer different outdoor dining options—and for good reason.  For many Minnesotans, the winter months engrain in us a need to take full advantage of the long days, sunny skies, and the great outdoors that warm weather brings. Stopping for ice cream or to get a quick bite to eat outside, oftentimes with our furry friends, is a great way to take advantage of all that Minnesota cities have to offer.  

Cons: Tables, chairs, dogs or other obstructions on sidewalks outside of restaurants or ice cream parlors can pose risks to pedestrians, which, if resulting in injuries, can lead to lawsuits against cities. Cities have the primary duty to maintain safe sidewalks and cannot pass this burden off to an abutting landowner. Cities also have the onus of adopting an additional ordinance if they want to allow doggy dining companions which must comply with state law mandates, such as expressly prohibiting dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs and specifically requesting certain information from the business in a permit process.

Just a Quick Pause (or PAWs): Communities may want to adopt both an ordinance regulating obstructions in the sidewalks (often disallowed unless permission granted), as well as an ordinance allowing outdoor eating and beverage establishments to obtain a permit to welcome dogs. This reduces risk for the city, while, at the same time, enables diners to comfortably enjoy their meal or treat outside.  Keep in mind, regarding doggy companions, cities cannot stop restaurants from deciding to ban dogs from their outside eating areas altogether and city regulations of dogs at these outside eateries do not apply to service dogs or the lawful use of a service animal by a licensed peace officer.

League position: The League wants cities to know they have a number of various tools available to regulate these outdoor areas, including zoning, business licensing, and alcohol regulations (if the establishment serves alcohol).

Resource: To find out more information about cities’ ability to regulate sidewalk use, as well as the Minnesota law regulating dogs at outdoor food and beverage service establishments, take a look at these memos: City Licensing; Doggy Dining (yes, this is a real thing); and Public Nuisances (pages 9-10).

This information has been compiled by Pamela Whitmore, staff attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1224

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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