As Temperatures Cool and Restrictions Shift, Restaurants Get Creative with Outdoor Dining

Shaniqua Juliano

When a cold snap hit Chicago last month, Cy Oldham was prepared. The owner of Uptown bar Fat Cat lit the heat lamps and fire pits on the patio and invited guests to cozy up with a warm Bourbon cider. The $7,000 investment in heaters, fire pits and propane tanks […]

When a cold snap hit Chicago last month, Cy Oldham was prepared. The owner of Uptown bar Fat Cat lit the heat lamps and fire pits on the patio and invited guests to cozy up with a warm Bourbon cider. The $7,000 investment in heaters, fire pits and propane tanks paid off.

“We had to figure out how to make it warm and cozy in the hope we can get a few more months of patio seating,” says Oldham. “If I didn’t have those heaters [when the cold snap hit], I would have lost half of my revenue.”

The coronavirus pandemic hit restaurants hard. In the first three months after Covid-related shutdowns, restaurants lost an estimated $120 billion in sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. Social distancing mandates led to restrictions on indoor dining, forcing restaurants to depend on patio seating to keep their businesses afloat.

Outdoor seating helped many weather the pandemic during the summer months, but the arrival of cooler temperatures has restaurateurs scrambling to come up with creative solutions to extend their patio seasons.

“Patio heaters are just like toilet paper—sold out.” —Cy Oldham, owner, Fat Cat

The City of Chicago launched the Winter Dining Challenge, awarding $5,000 prizes for solutions to stimulate and encourage safe outdoor dining. The city received 643 entries, with concepts ranging from rotating pop-up restaurants in local parks and multi-level parking garages, to heated shipping containers and dining pods. The winners will be announced in mid-October.

Oldham, who ordered fire pits and patio heaters in July, worries that restaurateurs who are just starting to plan for winter are already too late.

“Patio heaters are just like toilet paper—sold out,” she says.

In Boston, over the summer, Kristin Canty also started to think about how to extend the patio season at Woods Hill Pier 4.

Canty opened the restaurant in November 2019. Four months later, the pandemic forced her to close. When the doors re-opened in June, the landlord allowed her to expand patio seating. The outdoor tables were almost always full and Canty knew outdoor seating would be essential to her business being able to survive Covid-19.

Plastic dome "igloo" at Woods Hill Pier 4
Heated plastic dome “igloo” at Woods Hill Pier 4 / Photo courtesy Woods Hill Pier 4

“The summer was great but now it’s getting colder,” she says. “When people make a reservation, they tell us that they don’t want to sit inside.”

Canty knew falling temperatures would eventually slow the demand for outdoor dining. In August, she spent more than $20,000 on 12 heated igloos so guests could continue dining “outdoors,” regardless of the weather.

The heated plastic domes provide seating for up to six guests. Advance reservations are required, and food and beverage minimums range from $350 to $550 to help Canty offset the cost of the structures.

The igloos have attracted a lot of attention since they were erected on the Harborwalk in September.

“A huge draw is the panoramic view of the harbor and the igloos let us keep those views,” says Canty. “Everyone loves them. They are so cozy; even though you’re sitting outside, it’s still warm and it feels like a complete outdoor experience.”

Canty acknowledges the investment came with a great deal of risk, including the possibility of a second shutdown. She is hopeful that the governor will extend patio season through the end of the year and diners will continue making reservations over the coming season.

Rather than investing in a tent or heaters to extend outdoor dining, Jason Snopkoski, director of wine operations at Carboy Winery in Denver, repurposed unused indoor space to create distanced seating. The taproom, once a wide-open space for hosting events, now serves as a dining room. Snopkoski still hopes that patio seating, which was expanded to add 24 new tables, will remain popular through October.

“We invested a lot of money in tables [for expanded outdoor dining] and we were afraid that we’d invest $10,000 on heaters and we’d be shut down again,” he says. “In Denver, it could be sunny and 75 [degrees] in February and people will want to sit on the patio. We’ll keep hoping for those hot patio days.”

Oldham knows it’s just a matter of time before temperatures plummet and snow starts to fall in Chicago. She’ll keep investing in gas and filling the propane heaters as long as customers want to sit on the patio.

“I don’t know how cold it can get before people are uncomfortable sitting outside,” says Oldham. “But it’s not in my DNA to give up. We’ve got to move forward.”

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