Governor Murphy announced the reopening of indoor dining today, is everybody okay with it? We hit the streets to find out.
There’s a big question looming over the restaurant industry: What will happen when the weather gets too cold for outdoor dining?
For now, diners are — for the most part — content. Gone is the oppressive heat of summer, and we’re in a comfortable zone where a warm sweater can chase away a chill. But what happens when the temperature dips to the 40s; when clutching a hot beverage won’t be enough to keep your hands warm; when snow threatens to collapse outdoor tents and pile up on the sidewalks that now accommodate outdoor tables?
The truth: No one quite knows yet. But restaurant owners are making plans.
For restaurateurs hoping to keep outdoor dining running through the colder months, outdoor heaters will soon become a necessity, though for some — especially small independent restaurant owners— prohibitively expensive. Prices range from about $200 to $1,000 apiece.
But with diners overwhelmingly preferring to nurse a cocktail or dig into a burger outside — “Ninety percent of diners want to eat outdoors,” said Mark Chapman, chef and owner of Chappy’s Cafe in Franklin — many restaurateurs feel they have no choice but to shell out money for patio heaters, fire pits, propane canisters, additional electrical power lines and electrical engineers after already having paid out money for tents, outdoor tables, plexiglass dividers, planters, string lights and other decor.
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John Campbell, for example, owner of The River Palm Terrace in Edgewater, is paying $3,500 a week to rent his tent.
The Walpack Inn’s fire pit helps keep diners warm when the temperature drops. (Photo: The Walkpack Inn)
Some restaurants are buying blankets. The Hill in Closter offers its customers wool blankets along with a big patio fire pit. The Walpack Inn in Sandyston, which has a fire pit, offers fleece blankets for sale, along with a hot cocktail list. And Calandra’s Bakery and Restaurants in Fairfield is offering complimentary hot apple cider and blankets to outdoor diners (the blankets are “washed and sealed to keep our customers warm and safe,” Calandra’s assures on its Facebook page.). As one North Jersey restaurant-goer quipped, “Instead of Bring Your Own Bottle, BYOB will stand for Bring Your Own Blanket.”
Still, how long will blankets, fire pits and patio heaters do the trick?
“I figure we will be able to utilize the outdoors until Thanksgiving,” said Chris Cannon, owner of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown, who bought five heaters eight weeks ago. “After that, who knows? Honestly, if we go through a second wave, the entire business will be out of business.”
Alfresco dining at Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown (Photo: Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen)
Between early August and late September, Google trends shows a 95% increase in the number of New Jersey residents who searched “outdoor heaters.”
Heather Bertinetti Rozzi, chef of Stella Artisan Italian and owner of No. 12 in Ridgewood, ordered four new outdoor heaters at about $1,000 each for No. 12. Heaters were out of stock, she said, and it took weeks to get the shipment, which arrived in late September.
“Many of us didn’t see the shift in the weather coming so quickly,” she said. “They’re sold out everywhere.”
No. 12 currently offers indoor and outdoor dining; Stella is takeout only.
“When we ask people if they want to dine indoors, some get offended,” she said. “Everyone’s kind of on edge right now.”
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Regulations regarding outdoor heaters and tents vary from town to town. Hoboken, for example, has released clear rules for restaurants setting up propane or electrical heaters. The city is also requiring restaurants to have a plan for storing their outdoor setups in case of snow. Ridgewood officials are going to each restaurant and inspecting the outdoor space to make sure heaters are safe. Millburn is allowing electrical heaters to be placed under tents, but nothing with an open flame. Some towns have offered no guidance yet, making it more difficult for restaurant owners to plan for winter.
Scott Wells, co-owner of Bolero Snort Brewery in Carlstadt, bought six heaters more than a month ago. He and his staff at Bolero are also looking into putting down tent flaps in the outdoor beer garden set up in the parking lot. Creating two tent walls (and leaving the other two open for airflow) will, he hopes, make the area a bit warmer, as temperatures start to drop.
“We’re not doing inside at all,” he said. “It makes me nervous in general.”
For now, liquor licenses have been extended to include outdoor areas, so breweries and bars can serve liquor and beer outside. But that leeway will expire on Nov. 30, and there’s been no word yet from the state or New Jersey’s Alcoholic Beverage Control about an extension of that executive order. Wells said the borough of Carlstadt fully supports keeping those licenses extended.
“Give the business owners the ability to make the decision if they’ll stay open past November or not,” he said. “Because if customers are willing to come out, and I’m able to put them outside, that’s a lot safer for everyone.”
A patio heater can help keep outdoor socially-distant gatherings going. (Dreamstime/TNS) (Photo: Dreamstime, TNS)
Bolero Snort’s taproom fits only 12 people inside at 25% capacity. Because of the tight quarters, Wells has chosen to keep it closed off. He hopes home delivery and pickup orders will sustain his brewery when the weather gets too cold to keep the beer garden open. “If the money stops coming in,” he said, “then I’ll have to open the inside.”
For George Jamieson, owner of Novino in Mahwah, installing heaters outside of his Italian BYOB is not an option. The space is small, seating only about 14 to 16 people, and a plastic fence nearby could be a fire hazard.
During the winter, his customers will have to sit inside — where capacity has been reduced to 26 seats. To increase takeout and catering orders during the slow winter months, Jamieson has begun a loyalty program: 7% of your purchase back in future credit to Novino.
“The only thing for the government to do is send restaurants money to help us stay in business,” he said.
Novino is a new BYOB Italian restaurant in Mahwah. (Photo: Courtesy of Novino)
Missy Addison, owner and chef of Missy’s Main Street Cafe in Rockaway, isn’t counting on the government to help her out. She’s been squirreling away money “so I can have a cushion in the winter,” she said.
“I still have to pay, no matter what happens,” she said.
And while she’s pleased that her restaurant is doing about as well as it did pre-COVID-19 — “The numbers are just about the same,” she reported. “I’m one of the lucky ones” — she admits she’s worried about what happens once it gets nippy.
“If it’s pouring now, no one wants to eat outside,” she said. “I don’t know what is going to happen in the winter.”
Chris Masey, chef and owner of SubUrban Bar & Kitchen in Randolph, bought electric heaters three weeks ago and is now trying to get them installed. “They blow the circuits out,” he said. “We need to get electric lines dedicated just for our heaters.”
But he admits he doesn’t think his heaters will be of much use for much longer. “We figure we’re going to probably lose the outdoors in two weeks,” he said.
Masey is among the restaurateurs we spoke with who anticipate that, come Oct. 15, Gov. Phil Murphy will increase the space allowance of indoor dining to 50% from the current 25%.
But Masey admitted there’s no guarantee that diners, no matter how cold it is outside, will be willing to dine indoors. “Yes, you can offer it, but will people come?” he said.
Rozzi, of Stella Artisan and No. 12, agrees: “It doesn’t matter if we have heaters. If there’s a snowstorm, we can’t seat outside. Restaurant owners feel like we’re standing on the edge of a cliff and just hanging on.”
Rebecca King is a food writer for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.
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