With restaurants limited to 50-percent capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic, outdoor dining has become a big part of the restaurant business.
“We’ve been fortunate that the weather has been really exceptional this summer. Studies have shown that eating outside is a really safe alternative. We’ve been fearing winter for a long time and we know it’s on our doorstep,’’ said Curt Catallo, co-owner of Union Joints which operates seven restaurants locally.
Look for heated outdoor tents and igloos to pop up on the decks of many Oakland County restaurants as the cold weather sets in.
“In the previous years the igloos were a fun little bonus (at Honcho in Clarkston) to keep the patio going through the winter. But this year they’re going to do some heavy lifting because we’re counting on them to add some tables to our restaurant which will allow us to keep our servers busy throughout the winter,’’ Catallo said.
Union Joints will also have tents at Honcho and Gran Castor in Troy. He is working with the City of Berkley to be allowed to serve food instead of just beverages on the outdoor deck at the Vinsetta Garage.
At Fork n’ Pint in Waterford, general manager Bill Schwab is waiting for the arrival of igloos to install on the massive outdoor deck overlooking Cass Lake. They will also use igloos at their Lake Orion location.
At 15th Street Tavern in Clarkston, a 2,000-square foot tent has been built to handle more diners during the cold weather, according to owner Lindon Palushaj.
“Our goal throughout this pandemic has been twofold, one is to ensure the safety of our crew and our guests. And two is to keep all of our 700 folks on staff during this. We have (kept them) and our goal as we get to the winter is to continue to do that,’’ Catallo said.
The igloos, which will require reservations, seat up to 10.
“We can’t operate the igloos like we did in the past when the server would go inside and spend some time with folks and it’s warm and charming and fun,’’ Catallo said.
This year it will be a contact-free experience with diners using a digital ordering process.
“It’s so our folks aren’t in this bubble with people and people don’t have to worry about us being in there. The beauty of igloo is it’s a little pod and the bad thing about igloo is that it’s a little pod,’’ said Catallo who is a co-owner with his wife, Ann Stevenson, and alongside Erich Lines who is a managing partner.
They will fog and disinfect the igloos after each group leaves.
Of course inside dining is still an option.
“When folks come up and realize you’re taking the safety protocols seriously then they have a comfort level with you,’’ Catallo said. “It’s our goal to show people we care about their safety and we ask people to understand that the masks make our crew feel more comfortable too.’’
They ask diners to mask up unless they are sitting down.
“Again we’ve seen a lot in the restaurant business the past 25 years obviously this is something entirely new,’’ Catallo said. “We’re doing all we can to have our folks and guests feel comfortable in some really uncomfortable times.’’
Igloos will be all new on the deck at Waterford’s Fork n’ Pint.
“We put heaters out there, we’ve got igloos on their way — they should be here shortly. So we’re going to maintain a small presence outside no matter how cold it gets for the winter,’’ Schwab said.
Igloos are mostly designed for parties of six or more that are either family or related enough where they feel comfortable sitting in the igloo.
“You will have to make a reservation. We’ll have a 2-hour limit. With the huge deck we have— it’s an 11-foot diameter footprint — so we’re looking at five tables out there all year long,’’ Schwab said.
They have much more limited seating at the Lake Orion Fork n’ Pint so they used the igloos last year and will do so again this winter.
Schwab said with the colder weather he’s found more customers ready to dine indoors, although they are limited by the state of Michigan to 50-percent capacity.
“It’s a very high ceiling and we have multiple air conditioning units, we’re not drawing from one section of the restaurant and pumping it into another section. We pump from the outside and pump in, so everything that comes in pretty much goes out,’’ Schwab explained.
At the 15th Street Tavern in Clarkston they constructed a 2,000-square foot tent in September after they had added a 4,000-square foot deck in the summer.
“We’ll be using the tent for restaurant seating as well as large events,’’ owner Lindon Palushaj said. “We’ve done everything from showers to weddings outside to regular restaurant seating.’’
He said they’ve had a good response since they opened back up.
“I think the outdoor season definitely helped,’’ Palushaj said. “We wanted to keep it alive all winter time, if possible, that’s why we have our tent out there now. It will be heated all winter. It’s a clear tent — it’s almost like you’re sitting outside.’’