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A Looming Menace for Restaurants: Winter Is Coming

A Looming Menace for Restaurants: Winter Is Coming

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A Looming Menace for Restaurants: Winter Is Coming

An illustration of a server dressed for cold weather, presenting a tray that holds a tiny dining couple in a winterized dome.

Still struggling to recoup shutdown losses, businesses now must survive the harsh blow of cold weather

It happened around Labor Day weekend, the spiritual end of Midwestern summer. School was about to go back in session and those waking up early found that it was no longer sunny and sweltering at 7 a.m. While there were still several weeks left before autumn, there was a creeping cold in the upper Midwest over the holiday weekend, a reminder to everyone that, before you know it, it’ll be time to pull out parkas and trade noisy window air-conditioning units for hissing furnaces.

For a minute, it almost felt like a normal celebration of fall: People put out requests for cider doughnut recommendations, and gifs of Saturday Night Live’s “Sweater Weather” sketch made the rounds. Despite the pandemic that had driven most everyone from their usual routines and traditions, Midwesterners were getting pumped for chillier autumn weather. But what was for some an opportunity to celebrate the early arrival of changing leaves and everything plaid was a harbinger of bad times to come for restaurateurs now reliant on outdoor seating and the warm weather that allows it to survive. After a brutal six months for the restaurant business, things are only about to get worse: Winter is coming.

While every sector of the economy has been impacted by COVID-19 regulations, there’s perhaps no industry that’s been as intrinsically transformed as restaurants and bars. Where stores and shopping centers can enforce mask use at all times and offices can send their workers home to operate remotely, food businesses are by nature tied to the act of eating, which requires taking off that mask. And as businesses began to slowly reopen after partial spring shutdowns, restaurants returned at reduced capacities with required social distancing between groups and, in some cases, limits to dining indoors. Many restaurants were ahead of the curve, emphasizing outdoor seating because of its purported safeness in comparison to indoor dining, the idea being that indoor dining has poorer air circulation, leading to a higher probability of coming in contact with airborne particles transporting COVID-19.

Restaurants took advantage of pandemic-driven state and local ordinances that temporarily loosened regulations and in some cases allowed business to expand into streets for the season to recoup some of the seats lost indoors. Around the country, they built charming outdoor tents, created picnic-friendly takeout menus, and sold frozen cocktail popsicles to coax customers out of their homes to enjoy something resembling an old world of hospitality. But for businesses located in regions where summers were limited, many restaurant owners couldn’t forget the fact that all of this was temporary. Soon, minor inconveniences like unexpected thunderstorms on a sunny day would become snow, wind, freezing rain, and subzero temperatures — in the middle of an unpredictable pandemic. And, in an exhausting year with far more than its fair share of instability, they would have to once again pivot or face permanent closure.

Now, with fall barely here and winter weather approaching, restaurants and bars throughout the northern U.S. are figuring out how to adapt to a season that’s traditionally brutal for the industry.

An illustration of a cafe table buried in snow.

For Cafe Sante in Boyne City, a ski resort town on Lake Charlevoix in northern Michigan, summer means business. “We do over one-third of our [annual] sales over a 10-week period,” chef and manager Kyle Marshall says. This year, even with COVID-19 restrictions, the region was blessed with mild enough weather that restaurants were able to keep patios open nearly all season. For many restaurants Up North, business boomed despite staffing issues and capacity limits, as travelers chose vacation destinations closer to home. “If you’re going to have a summer where people had to socially distance and be outdoors, you couldn’t have asked for a better one,” he says.

While Cafe Sante did offer both indoor and outdoor seating, Marshall observed a substantial preference for outside options in 2020. “On a given night, I have a two-hour wait for an outdoor table and open seating or a 20-minute wait for an indoor table,” he says. And he wonders how this will play out as the season changes. “I am very concerned about the time when we have to shut the windows and close the doors, especially in the fall, because our customer base typically shifts to an older generation,” Marshall says. “And that generation has so shown a preference to either dine outdoors or not at all and take curbside service… I have severe concerns about losing the outdoor seating.”

Likewise, as the snow starts to fall, typically around Halloween in Boyne City, Marshall notes that Cafe Sante might not have the capacity necessary to serve skiers visiting the nearby hill, which could hurt what’s usually a “pretty decent” offseason for the restaurant. “What’s going to be difficult is when we get to the offseason, and we have to close our doors and windows and we don’t have places to put these people,” he says. “That’s when the money dries up.” He points out that businesses still have to pay their rent and their employees regardless of the season, and those costs, combined with a lower volume of sales could prove insurmountable to some restaurants. “My concern in northern Michigan is going to be next spring, if we don’t fill the coffers to cover bills in [the] offseason,” he says.

Stephen Roginson knew he had to do something in the spring to make sure his business stayed afloat through the pandemic. The owner of a small but popular beer hall called Batch Brewing Company in Detroit, Roginson could see that can sales and takeout meals were simply not going to sustain the brewpub through the end of the year. After all, even before the pandemic, winter was a challenge for local businesses. So, the brewer evaluated his options. “Fairly early on, I knew that outdoor service was the only way that we wanted to conduct business,” Roginson tells Eater, noting that customers are only allowed inside to use restrooms. “Probably in April, I started planning for building a structure that would both make it more comfortable outside in the warm months, but also give us the opportunity to do something in the colder months as well.”

Using money pieced together from nonprofit grants to small businesses, Roginson and his team started the slow process of constructing a massive wooden pole barn in the parking lot of Batch Brewing Company — one of three locations he owns in the vicinity. Roginson hoped to create an outdoor seating space that offered better air circulation than the small indoor beer hall and also provided shelter from direct sun and unpredictable weather. Right now, the barn is relatively simple and open with an astroturf floor, but as the season progresses, Roginson plans to add propane heaters and three vinyl walls on the north, south, and west sides of the structure to insulate from the cold. He hopes that Batch’s building on the east side will act as a windbreak.

Still, Roginson isn’t sure exactly whether Batch customers will embrace an outdoor winter space. “I have no idea what to expect,” he says. “We’re in Michigan. Guests are pretty hearty and they also quarantine six months out of the year because of the weather, but these are the same people that grill outside in the winter and have fire pits in their backyards.”

Others are putting on their engineering hats this year, as well as their epidemiologist hats, to deduce the least risky way to make it through the first quarter of next year. Over the last few years, many businesses — particularly in colder regions like Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota — have turned to geodesic domes for a twist on their usual winter service, offering customers the option of reserving their very own snow globe, complete with cozy blankets and heaters.

This year, the domes are once again being put forth, but this time as a purportedly safer option for outdoor seating. Volkan Alevok, the owner of Gardenigloo, a major purveyor of plastic geodesic domes, confirms to Eater in an email that the interest from bars, restaurants, and breweries for spiked “tenfold” during the pandemic despite the fact that the Florida-based company was forced to halt production for three months due to COVID-19. As a result, the company is sold out, with a backlog of orders, and has raised the price of its products from $949 to $1,149 to account for added shipping costs between Istanbul, where parts of the domes are manufactured, and Miami. “Before [COVID-19] it was nice to have a Gardenigloo unit to utilize empty spaces in winter … now it is a necessity for outdoor dining and social distancing,” Alevok writes.

When the temperatures were still hovering in the high 80s in August, southeast Michigan restaurants Camp Ticonderoga and the White Horse Inn were already opening up reservations for igloos with seats for up to 10 people. And more establishments, including Detroit-based gastropub chain Bobcat Bonnie’s, have followed suit. But while there’s no doubt that these plastic bubbles do offer some protection from diners outside of one group, they won’t nece provide the air circulation necessary to protect people in the same way that dining in open air would.

In fact, San Francisco’s Hashiri Restaurant already tried out the geodesic dome approach to social distancing in August, charging $200 per person for a seat and promising to air out and disinfect the spaces between guests. However, the optics of erecting the enclosures to distance wealthy diners from homeless people in the neighborhood did not sit well with many advocates in the city. Based on a complaint, the health department visited Hashiri and swiftly ordered the tents taken down “due to the enclosed nature of the igloo structure which may not allow for adequate air flow.” In recent guidance for fall and winter dining, the city of Chicago is also requiring restaurants to address the risks of COVID-19 transmission in plastic domes and enclosed spaces, noting that businesses “must post placards advising about increased risk of transmission within an enclosed space.” The guidance further states that domes may only be used by individual groups and “must have adequate ventilation to allow for air circulation.” Some restaurants such as East Eats, a Detroit restaurant made entirely from geodesic domes, rose to this challenge by constructing seating on platforms that allow for air circulation and investing in domes with windows.

Brian Jupiter, the chef behind Frontier and Ina Mae in Chicago, has found creative ways to adapt to the pandemic by introducing family-style meal kits and focusing on takeout and delivery service. “We’ve been as open-minded as possible and I think we’ve tried to stick to that, because you don’t know what the next move is or what the next rules that might hit may have that may affect you,” Jupiter says. Once patio seating was permitted, Jupiter took advantage of the large outdoor seating areas at his businesses to offer distanced dining in the fresh air. Ina Mae’s walk-up window — a popular restaurant adaptation during the pandemic — also became a destination in 2020 for customers on foot to pick up grab-and-go New Orleans-style Snoballs and slushies. Customers, he adds, seemed to view patios as more of an event, replacing some of the traditional summer activities like Lollapalooza. “I think that patios, as well as some of the people that have rooftops and things like that, have benefited from people needing to get out, but having less options for where they can spend their time in the sun,” he says. Even so, business is still down, and as the weather cools, Jupiter is preparing for the challenges ahead.

Going into winter, Jupiter plans to transition once again, enclosing his outdoor seating areas and relaunching meal kits as well as online classes. The Ina Mae window may begin offering coffee and pastries instead of frozen drinks. Nevertheless, Jupiter admits he’s concerned about the months to come. “The winter is pretty scary, just the thought of it all,” he says, especially now that group dining is discouraged. “December was always good for Christmas parties and corporate dining events, and that won’t be there this year. New Year’s Eve won’t be the same at places either this year,” he says. “We’re trying to figure out ways to keep the people that we do have employed during the winter months.”

Dayne Bartscht, of metro Detroit’s Ferndale Project and Eastern Market Brewing Company. has found creative ways to adjust to the unpredictability of hospitality service in 2020. Ferndale Project, a brewery that opened just weeks before the first cases were identified in Michigan, was able to stay nimble. “For me, that was definitely a blessing in disguise, because we weren’t set in our ways, we hadn’t established any processes, [and] everyone was new to their roles,” he says. “So when the pandemic hit, we were all just ready for whatever was ahead.”

While Eastern Market Brewing Company remained closed for a significant part of the spring, Ferndale Project began offering online ordering and curbside pickup as well as in-house delivery through an app for everything from canned beer to coffee beans to frozen vegan pasties. Each new offering was an idea put forth by a staff member during a 10-day business brainstorming challenge. Instead of cutting costs, Bartscht made big investments in items like delivery vans; he’s so far avoided laying off employees and has in fact hired new staff members to fill roles. “I was nervous, and it was a little bit scary spending the money and time during a pandemic, as you’re watching your revenue getting close to zero, and then convincing yourself to buy three vans,” he says. “But I think placing that big bet early helped us establish that business, and it’s been growing week over week for the past couple months.” As a result, Eastern Market Brewing Company and Ferndale Project were fortunate to see steady revenue rather than a decline year over year — less than Bartscht’s projected growth, but still better than many companies in the industry.

Currently, the breweries are only offering outdoor service. Eastern Market Brewing Company has taken over a street in the Eastern Market district thanks to a temporary permit from the city, and Ferndale Project is utilizing its expansive outdoor seating area, but Bartscht isn’t certain how things will look as fall progresses and cold weather starts to deter customers from sitting outside. “We’ve talked about potentially moving some tables inside, but we’re in a nice place where we are generating enough revenue that we can be very thoughtful in everything we do,” he says. “I also know there will be a lot of pushback, understandably, from our team” if the Ferndale Project started seating customers indoors. “I just don’t feel comfortable yet with [people] being inside of our space, even if they’re spaced out. But that being said, come winter, we’re gonna have some decisions to make, which may include the potential of people dining inside.”

On top of all this uncertainty is a universal feeling of mental and physical exhaustion, not to mention the financial burdens, in the service industry from having to constantly react to the changing tides of requirements and provide a safer environment for customers and staff. “The most tiring and exhausting part of all this is that we finally have gotten to a groove with our patios and our delivery service, and then when I pause to take a deep breath, I’m like, ‘Wait a second, this is only gonna last for two more months, and then you have to come up with something new,’” Bartscht says. “You have to reimagine your business every few months, every season, and it’s exhausting. So I think a lot of businesses are just trying to figure out how to get through the weekend, and it’s tough to think forward to the winter, but you have to.”

Stephanie Byrd, the owner of Flood’s Bar & Grille and the Block in Detroit, is also feeling apprehensive about another season of reinventing her restaurants. Up to now, she’s managed to navigate the family businesses through the changing tides of the pandemic with a mixture of takeout, dine-in service, and outdoor dining. But going into winter, she’s not sure what to do. “Do we make the investment further into winterizing everything or do we just consider carryout business only in winter?” she says.

While Flood’s has sustained through hard times and economic downturns, the Block, located along Detroit’s major artery Woodward Avenue, is in a more precarious position. It’s new and more dependent on traffic from the neighboring Garden Theater events space, also owned by Byrd’s family. That venue is currently closed, and the narrow sidewalk limits the Block’s options for outdoor seating. Recently, Byrd decided to return to indoor service at the location based on customer requests.

“We’ll try to keep the patios open as long as possible for Flood’s. We’ve been considering buying heaters,” she says, but notes that outdoor heaters only compensate for so long in Michigan. “They’re high maintenance, they’re expensive, and they’ll really only extend the patio season maybe for like a month [or] a month and a half if that,” she says. Given how costly it’s been to do business this year, she’s unsure if it’s worth the financial investment.

Bartscht is similarly hesitant to drain bank accounts for new gear that could become obsolete if the rules change or there’s another dine-in shutdown. “I’m a little reluctant to spend a bunch of money on infrastructure to allow dining in the winter knowing that kids will be going back to school, and sports will be kicking off, and there’s potential for a spike in the pandemic,” he says. “The last thing I want to do is spend $50,000 or $100,000 to winterize our patios, and [it ends up] that there’s no option for dining either way.” At any rate, restaurants that do want to spend the money could still be out of luck. Eater Chicago reports that some Chicago restaurants may forego outdoor climate control all together because heaters already in short supply and rental companies have hiked prices.

A winter slump has always been inevitable for businesses in regions with four seasons, but how those restaurants will persevere in this moment will likely define how the dining landscape looks going forward. A recent National Restaurant Association survey made dire predictions about how the coming months would likely play out, with massive closures resulting from a combination of lost income from the pandemic, seasonal declines in business, and mass evictions. Some branches of that conservative tradegroup are even pushing back now against the safety protocols meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as advocating for increased indoor capacity limits if positive case rates stay below a certain threshold.

Chef Max Hardy, who operated an Afro-Caribbean restaurant called Coop out of the Detroit Shipping Company food hall, worries that his business may not make it through the winter without adjustments to those limits. “Winter last year and the year previously, we always lost a little bit of business,” he says. “And so now you know, not being at 100 percent [capacity], it’s going to be be a little challenging, just because we do know we have a drop-off in business.” He’s hopeful the state might begin allowing 75 percent capacity — up from the current 50 percent capacity in Michigan — soon. “But if not, if we’re at the same situation we’re at right now, I think [it’s] going to be a little tough, and I don’t see a lot of restaurants, particularly us, making it with that kind of capacity — especially in the winter time.”

Although he’s applied, Hardy, like nearly all Black restaurateurs in Michigan and beyond, did not receive any assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), nor has he been able to access grant money. If capacity can’t be increased safely, he’s hopeful that the federal government may come through with some sort of financial assistance for small businesses.

Others, like Jupiter, were granted PPP money, but have been reluctant to touch it for fear they may not be able to pay it back. At the same time, Jupiter points out that the cost of doing business has risen significantly, with new necessities like gloves costing up to $100 a case. “Restaurants are going to need money first in order to be able to handle rents and other costs that an industry that already survived on very small margins will truly need,” he says. “Otherwise you’re just going to have even more people that are losing jobs and more businesses that are closing, [and] more commercial real estate that’s becoming available with no one to rent.”

Byrd echoes that sentiment, noting that with limited capacity, there’s only so much restaurant owners can do to keep the doors open. “We need money. We need money that we don’t have [to pay back] and not loans,” she says, adding that repayment is going to be extremely difficult for any business owner at this point. “Everyone’s going to be affected in the industry when the weather turns, right? Because if we’re still at 50 percent capacity, our patio at Flood’s makes up 25 percent of that, so we’re bound to be affected. It’s just a matter of when. So dollars are really the only thing that can make this easier for us.”

Pointing to the lack of action at the federal level to provide additional relief to small-business owners during a period when restaurant owners have less free time to lobby, Roginson warns that without financial assistance, the next few months will inevitably lead to closings and layoffs in the hospitality industry. “We are going into a critical time period for most small businesses, specifically service restaurant bars, with this weather change, and the northern states in the Midwest,” he says. “If there isn’t some additional programming, there is going to be an absolute, unimaginable loss of not only creative establishments that express a community’s personality through food and drink, but also the jobs associated with it,” he says. Roginson is concerned that lawmakers are missing the point: Small businesses like restaurants and bars employ workers who will have few alternative options for a paycheck when places begin to shutter, and that could have a lasting, detrimental impact on local economies. “We thought it was hard in April and May. Just wait until you see January.”

While the outlook seems bleak, Roginson is grateful that customers are showing up to support the places they love. “People are overjoyed that we’re open. People want to come out and support. And I need to make sure that I am taking that optimistic sentiment — that hopefulness — and pairing it with an environment that people can feel comfortable and feel safe [in]. And if I keep doing that, and they keep doing that, then we’ve got a path forward,” he says. “And I think any business that gets through the winter and survives until May has got a path forward. We’re going to lose a lot of businesses, and it’s going to hurt. And I think every small business in this space knows that. And they’re all just hoping that they’re going to be one of the ones that make it until the spring.”

Tara Jacoby is a freelance illustrator and art director based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Instagram.