By Stephen Eisenhammer, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – For decades, restaurants and bars spread seemingly unchecked into street-side space, forming an important part of Rio’s cityscape and a vital revenue stream for their owners. But it now looks like the local Prefeitura has decided to enforce strict licensing laws surrounding the application for external seating zones.
It appears to have accompanied Mayor Eduardo Paes’ Operação Choque de Ordem (Operation Shock of Order) created in 2009 to combat disorder in Rio’s public spaces. In 2011 the UOP arm of the program stepped up efforts around the city with a 24-hour presence on the streets.
Elise Leite, owner of Venda Mineira, a new cafe in Botafogo, which has been open just eight months, says the law is now “very strict.”
“The protocol is long, with different clauses depending on the size of the sidewalk in front of your business,” she tells The Rio Times. Leite pays R$500 per year to the Prefeitura and another single, flat fee of R$400 to her condominium for an outside seating license.
Sam Flowers, owner of the Gringo Cafe in Ipanema, who has been in Rio for four years and opened the restaurant two years ago, says that the authorities have become noticeably stricter and the application process formidably more complex.
“This business has been here seven years when I bought it and now suddenly the license for the outside seating area is not in order,” he explains. “It’s been awful,” he says through a grimace, gazing at the outside table and chairs that make up nearly three-quarters of his seating capacity.
“In the last 2 months I’ve paid nearly R$2,000 in fines, that’s the cost of a staff person.”
The problem Flowers says, lies not in the actual requirement of a license, which he describes as a positive development that “puts everyone on the same playing field,” but in the labyrinthine process involved in getting approved.
“As with so many things in Brazil you only find out what you need and how to do it as you go, as you fail. This is incredibly expensive and time consuming for a small business,” he adds.
Unlike Leite who describes the application process as “relatively simple,” Flowers is struggling to get majority approval from his condominium. The problem, he explains, is that the building is made up almost entirely of professional landlords who rent out their properties which means the actual owners hardly ever attend the condominium meetings, making an agreement between the majority of them all but impossible.
Several months ago the outdoor seating area, complete with nicely colored tiles and wooden benches, around a large tree in front of Blue Agave bar and restaurant in Ipanema was demolished by the Prefeitura, leaving a bare concrete box.
Even more dramatically, in 2009 Espelunca Chic bar in Gávea was reportedly fined R$1.8 million, then demolished. The property was irregular because it occupied part of a driveway, although in place for thirty years.
With Rio’s climate, outdoor seating is a natural option, and for residents it is a big part of the city’s charm. Much more so then the street hawkers and panhandlers, or other targets of the Shock and Order policy.