Now is the Time to Invest in Winterized Outdoor Seating

With local dine-in eating restrictions choking many restaurants out of business and uncertainty surrounding a resurgence of COVID-19 during the winter, industry professionals are urging businesses to invest in winterized outdoor dining.

Speaking to CNN, Jason Kaplan, CEO of JK Consulting Group, said the uncertain future for restaurant operations because of a possible COVID resurgence is reason enough for business owners to upgrade.

“Everybody is scared of the winter right now,” he said. And even though a few businesses can survive on their dine-in capacity alone, many restaurants are “still losing money, regardless of delivery and takeout and outdoor dining, they’re still not being profitable.”

While there have been few viable solutions offered, one idea gaining traction in some areas would allow restaurants to serve customers who sit in personalized bubbles with heaters. That way restaurants can offer both the comforts of warmth and social distancing. 

And the time to come up with innovative solutions is running out, according to some industry professionals. They fear the traditional means of supplementing lost outdoor seating income like adding winter foods such as stews and soups to the menu and hosting holiday events might not bear enough fruit to carry a business through until spring.

“What we’re hearing from other people in the industry is the question: How long are you going to be able to survive, and is now the time that I just cut bait?” Nia Grace, owner of Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen in Boston told The Boston Globe.

Restaurants across the country are singing the same song. In Anchorage, Alaska, Bernadette Bradley, owner of restaurant and bar Bradley House, told KTUU that she is hopeful but still fearful of winter because the state’s harsh temperatures make it almost unbearable for customers.

The same is true of Mike Eitel and Nomad World Pub in Milwaukee. Eitel told USA Today that he is currently planning to winterize, but is unsure whether the city will allow his customers to continue to sit in temporary seating areas on nearby roads.

Nomad’s regular dine-in capacity is 99 customers, but local regulations prevent the business from opening its dining room. So, Nomad relies exclusively on its 80 outdoor tables to generate its operating revenue.

But, a business being open doesn’t guarantee it will make money. That was the pandemic-induced issue the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was meant to address for restaurants. In reality, the program loaned money to corporate chains and left small businesses fighting for crumbs. Because of this, a majority of restaurants are being forced to take out loans to keep their heads above water.

According to a report by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, nearly 75 percent of independently owned restaurants are taking on additional debt because they can’t afford to operate at 50 percent capacity or below due to local limitations on dine-in eating. Some restaurants reported taking out loans above $500,000 to pay their obligations.

Without investing in outdoor seating, restaurants run the risk of closing for good, according to Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation.

“Even if these small businesses are able to overcome the massive financial burden of reopening, many are afraid they won’t see enough customers at their tables to fully support their operations,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile, federal aid seems to drift further from shore with each passing day. Legislators still talk about giving restaurants more money through the RESTAURANTS Act, but little has been done to move the needle.

The act does not differ from its predecessors in that money loaned to restaurants can only be used for “payroll (not including employee compensation exceeding $100,000/year), benefits, mortgage, rent, utilities, maintenance, supplies (including protective equipment and cleaning materials), food, debt obligations to suppliers, and any other expenses deemed essential by the Secretary of the Treasury,” according to the bill’s text.

So, it seems as though many restaurants will be left to fend for their own once winter comes. 

Some cities recognize how desperate the situation is for their local restaurants. Chicago is currently offering $5000 to anyone who can design a way for restaurants to operate safely during its harsh winter.

Neighboring Evanston is planning on rolling out its winter operation guidelines to restaurants within the next month. Some possibilities include installing heat lamps and offering customers blankets.

Frisco, Colorado’s city council is considering a proposal to allow the Frisco Pedestrian Promenade to continue until winter, an event which shut down the city’s Main Street to allow pedestrians to walk between shops and restaurants. The event provided a boon to the local restaurants and retail shops and 67 percent of those surveyed afterward said they wished to see it extended.

“I’m nervous. We’re wondering if we could get shut down again,” Kristin Canty, owner of Woods Hill Pier 4 told The Boston Globe. “We’re in a lot of debt, and it seriously hurt our cash flow. For my restaurants, it’s completely weather-dependent right now. That’s why we’re nervous about going into the fall.”

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