From mandated shutdowns to indoor occupancy limits and social distancing restrictions, restaurants and bars have had to rethink every facet of their operations during Covid-19. The expansion of outdoor dining during the summer and fall months helped many companies claw back precious revenue and keep staff employed, but as winter settles in across much of the country, those opportunities are dwindling.
“We’re fortunate that we have spacious outdoor sidewalk cafés at each of our restaurants,” says Doug Dunlay, a co-owner of Chicago-based 4 Star Restaurant Group, which operates seven concepts in the Windy City. “The outdoor dining option is the only thing that’s kept us in business and allowed us to keep most of our staff employed. When the weather puts a stop to our outdoor set up, we anticipate a revenue drop of 60%-70%.” Dunlay adds that even as Chicago reopened indoor dining in limited capacity, many restaurant and bar patrons in the city said they felt more comfortable outside, which is concerning for the winter months. His 4 Star Restaurant Group has already spent money on tents, greenhouse-like domes, and outdoor heating units to extend patio dining as much as possible, but he admits this is a temporary solution and won’t be viable throughout all of the winter months.
In addition, city regulations on heaters and tents are limiting the company’s options. “Keeping tents open on the sides renders them useless when the temperature drops below 60 degrees,” Dunlay says. “And just about every heater currently available is fueled by propane. We’re trying to extend our outdoor dining as much as possible, but all of these efforts come with an additional cost that’s difficult to justify.”
Boston also has long, cold winters, and outdoor dining will be difficult to maintain there too. Ran Duan, founder and owner of Blossom Bar and Baldwin Bar, applied for winter occupancy extensions for his patio spaces in an effort to keep outdoor business going as long as possible. Duan received a patio heater permit and purchased 20 heaters for his venues, though he notes that the warming units were more expensive than expected because of a supply shortage. “Despite our efforts to provide eat-in and takeout options through the winter, we anticipate having the slowest winter in our history,” Duan says. “We’ll lose 50% occupancy if we have to close the patio, which will translate to an equivalent loss of business. We’re planning to increase marketing and adapt more takeout kits and to-go cocktails to make up for low revenue. I worry most about my staff and providing jobs. If the numbers don’t work out, our last resort will be to hibernate for winter until patio season starts again.”
To help guests stay warm, Duan is also looking at warm cocktails to set the mood outside. One of his more popular options is the Hot Buttered Banana Rum ($14), made with Santa Teresa 1796 Solera and Plantation OFTD rums, Lustau Solera Reserva brandy, house-made brown butter banana paste, and hot water, topped with passion fruit foam. Warm drinks are also at the forefront for New York City’s Kimoto Rooftop in Brooklyn. The venue added several new offerings this winter, including a St-Germain and Jameson Irish whiskey-based Hot Toddy ($14), a Noilly Prat-based Mulled Vermouth ($14), and the Spiced Apple Tea ($14), which blends Bombay Sapphire gin, Martini Bianco, lemon juice, and Eager Cloudy Pressed apple juice that’s been simmered with orange blossom honey, green apple slices, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, and black tea.
“Since we’re a rooftop lounge, outdoor dining has always been one of the key factors that attract guests to our space,” says Kimoto founder and owner Andy Lee. “When New York City started to allow outdoor dining during Covid-19, we took the opportunity to reformat our seating to provide guests with a more private and intimate atmosphere by installing partitions. Our roof is covered, so we’ve been open year-round prior to Covid-19, but recent restrictions create additional complexities.”
Lee says his bar has used outdoor heating lamps in years past and plans to do so again, though he worries about how all the uncertainties will play out as winter takes hold. “The ever-changing landscape makes operating during the winter more difficult,” Lee adds. “We anticipate business will be slower, as it’s historically been for most lounges and restaurants in this city, but we strive to provide our guests with the same elevated experience year-round.”