Katie Akin, Patrick Cooley, Tom Daykin, Mark Kurlyandchik and Brett Molina, USA TODAY Network
Published 7:42 a.m. ET Oct. 8, 2020 | Updated 2:06 p.m. ET Oct. 8, 2020
Courtney Plaskitt, a server at Health House Foods and Taste of New York in Johnston, helps a customer on the patio Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register)
At Jesse’s Embers, a steakhouse and seafood restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa, summertime diners took their business to the parking lot.
Owner Deena Edelstein created a makeshift patio there in June, setting out several large, round tables on the asphalt. The outdoor dining area was adaptable and allowed abundant space for maintaining the required distance between customers suggested by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
It was an instant hit with customers. Edelstein said that even after the restaurant reopened its indoor dining room in September, most customers still requested to sit outside.
After several weeks of mandatory closure in the spring and with the capacity limits that accompanied reopening, Edelstein said the outdoor option made a big difference.
“Since we’ve done the outside seating, we were able to at least cover our expenses and pay our staff,” she said.
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For many restaurants across the nation, outdoor dining has served as a crucial pivot to recapture business lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced cities to shut down indoor dining to prevent the virus’s spread.
As winter approaches and temperatures drop, restaurants in locations with colder weather are starting to rethink how to keep outdoor dining open.
Research from the National Restaurant Association found 1 in 6 restaurants closed permanently or long-term amid the pandemic. And as more states report rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, there’s a fear more restaurants will shut down.
Time is ticking. According to a survey of 3,500 restaurants operators by the restaurant organization, establishments said they will be able to continue offering outdoor dining until November.
Nearly half of all full-service restaurants (49%) say they will take actions to extend outdoor dining, including adding tents and patio heaters.
Rueben Rivers and his girlfriend, Zoe Heis, of Milwaukee take in a soccer match at Nomad World Pub on Aug. 19. (Photo: Angela Peterson / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
In Milwaukee, Nomad World Pub made big changes – including expanded outdoor dining to a closed street on the city’s east side.
Restaurant owner Mike Eitel and other local restaurateurs are considering ways to improve their outdoor dining spaces so they can operate throughout the winter – while hoping Milwaukee will better embrace the cold, snowy season. Eitel is considering ways to keep Nomad’s patio open throughout winter.
Milwaukee began allowing restaurants to reopen with limited capacity on June 5.
Many patrons, mindful of the virus, prefer to dine outside.
Also, some restaurateurs remain concerned about the virus spreading even with reduced capacity, increased sanitation, mask requirements and other safety measures.
Nomad’s indoor seating, with room for up to 99 patrons, remains closed.
The patio can normally accommodate up to 160 patrons. That’s now limited to 80 because of the pandemic, Eitel said.
However, Nomad was the first Milwaukee restaurant to obtain city permission to shut down a street for outdoor dining under the new Active Streets for Businesses Program.
The pilot program, which the Common Council and Mayor Tom Barrett approved in June, suspends code and permit requirements to allow expedited city approval for restaurants to use streets and sidewalks for outdoor dining. It also waives fees for those businesses.
Several restaurants are using the program to convert parking lanes into seasonal dining space.
Nomad went further.
Along with a parking lane, it is using a small portion of North Warren Avenue, just south of Brady Street, during peak periods. Those public spaces have added room for 76 patrons.
“Oh my God, it saved our (butts),” Eitel said.
But the pilot program is set to end on Nov. 15. So Eitel’s focus is on making the patio usable throughout winter.
A specific proposal to extend that program is coming soon for review by the Milwaukee Common Council, said Beth Weirick, Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District chief executive officer.
Meanwhile, the district is working on a marketing campaign to persuade people that outdoor drinking, dining and other activities can still be fun even when the cold wind blows.
The National Restaurant Association is urging local leaders across the country to offer more incentives to expand the outdoor dining season. In a letter last month to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the organization suggested moves such as easing the process for obtaining permits to offer outdoor dining, and providing tax credits toward equipment used toward outdoor dining.
“While not a substitute for the resumption of full capacity indoor dining, actions that local leaders take to extend the outdoor dining season will help restaurants of all sizes in the community,” wrote Mike Whatley, vice president of state and local affairs for the association.
Patrons enjoy the patio under a tent at Gemut Biegarden in Columbus September 21, 2020. Restaurants are starting to adapt patios for the temperatures as they begin to drop. (Photo: Eric Albrecht/Dispatch)
Hen Quarter in Dublin, Ohio, is one of the few central Ohio eateries to see a year-over-year sales increase this spring and summer, which owner Ron Jordan largely attributed to the restaurant’s expansive patio in the Bridge Park development.
Maintaining those sales figures means giving customers a sense of safety, Jordan said. He plans to set up heated tents and possibly “igloos” for small parties.
“I don’t know how much of that is going to be possible, but that’s the plan right now,” he said.
Roughly two-thirds of seating at Gemut Biergarten in Columbus, Ohio, is outdoors, co-owner Kyle Hofmeister said. Last fall, the tavern erected a heated tent around its outdoor dining area, and plans to do the same this year.
“We had several events back there, whether it was DJ nights or a weekly trivia night,” he said.
Gemut and Hen Quarter aren’t alone. Treva Weaver, chief operating officer of the Columbus-based Wasserstrom Company, said other restaurants are adding tents, heaters and domes to prolong the outdoor season.
“After last weekend (when temperatures dipped below 70 degrees and into the 40s at night in much of Ohio) there was a lot more interest,” she said.
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In Detroit, EastEats has a unique restaurant concept: the outdoor space is composed of 12 geodesic domes built on platforms. Ten are for guests, who reserve the domes in time blocks online in advance, and the other two are for service staff.
Everything other than the domes is made from upcycled materials: The platforms the domes sit on are wood pallets, and the tables and seats are old shipping crates and wire spools. Sustainability is paramount here.
“This was born out of the pandemic,” restaurant partner Kwaku Osei-Bonsu said. “Not to at all suggest that we saw only the financial opportunity, but out of tragedy comes industry. When we were looking at the tragedy of the pandemic and then the tragedy of the restaurant industry on top of it, we saw an opportunity there. The concept of dining out is not going to die. People still want to socialize and go out and entertain, but they need a space to do it in that makes sense for them.”
The domes are open on one side during the warmer months, but EastEats will convert into enclosed heated domes for winter. The goal is to offer service year-round.
Anywhere from two to eight guests reserve a dome through the app Tock for their desired time slot on their desired day. The cost is $45 per person and includes the dome rental, plus five food items cooked on the adjacent food truck. For another $10 per party, you can bring your own alcohol.
While some restaurants look to expand outdoor dining, others are focusing on delivery.Alexander Hall, owner of several restaurants around the Des Moines area, said he doesn’t plan to buy heaters or other outdoor equipment to stretch patio season, instead making adjustments to accomodate delivery.
Hall said 2020 has been the toughest year he’s seen in nearly three decades working in the industry. But he sees a glimmer of hope at the end of a long winter indoors.
“I think we’ll bloom next year,” Hall said. “We’ve just got to buckle down over this period to get to the spring, and then everything will be great. It better be.”