Restaurants look at ways to maintain distance, prepare dining spaces for winter

Posted at 1:44 PM, Sep 11, 2020

When COVID-19 forced businesses to reduce capacity, restaurants had to get creative. Many opened up outdoor space to dine.

Now, with winter coming, restaurants are scrambling to figure out how to keep outdoor spaces comfortable.

“We won a James Beard award here. I think what we’re known for is amazing food and service and great wine,” said Chef Jennifer Jasinski, owner of Crafted Concepts Restaurant Group.

Rioja is one of the restaurants.

“We’re just trying to plan. Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” Jasinski said.

Like many restaurants across the U.S., Rioja is struggling with bringing business back and following physical distancing guidelines.

“The order that let us increase our patio at each of our restaurants was a really big help over the summer. It got us to about 65 to 70% of our prior year occupancy,” Jasinski said.

Outdoor space has been the saving grace for many.

The National Restaurant Association Research Group conducted a survey of more than 3,500 restaurant operators from August 26 to September 1 nationwide.

“Places that have table service, approximately three fourths are currently utilizing outdoor space which is a very large percentage,” said Mike Whatley, vice president of state and local affairs for the National Restaurant Association. “And it's making up an average of 44% of daily sales, which is very high by historical standards. Almost half of their money currently is coming from outdoor dining.”

But outdoor space may present some challenges in the coming months.

“Equipment for outdoor dining, especially when it gets cold, it gets expensive,” Whatley said. “What we found is that the average restaurateur is hoping to utilize their outdoor space two months more from this point moving forward.”

“It’s absolutely terrifying. I feel like it’s 'Game of Thrones' and winter is coming and I’m scared. It’s not white walkers, I’m just scared of the occupancy,” Jasinski said.

And she’s not alone.

Many restaurants across the country are facing the same battle, and searching for solutions. The City of Chicago is reaching out to help by hosting a Winter Design Challenge, inviting the community to reimagine the winter outdoor dining experience for a prize.

It’s similar to how Larimer Square in Denver, Colorado, where Rioja is located, was re-imagined, by letting the community have a say.

“It wasn't just about the seating capacity, it was about the experience itself of being on the street and I mean really, it’s worked,” Jon Buerge said.

Buerge is the Chief Development Officer at Urban Villages, the property management company in charge of Larimer Square, a prime example of the “Street-ery” concept.

“This 'street-ery' concept is a new one where you block off a street in an urban area, and allow restaurants to take over some of that space. We’re seeing that in a number of jurisdictions,” Whatley said.

“Some of the things that we've been exploring are tent systems that could be heated and, on a nice day, you can roll up the walls,” Buerge said.

He said solutions really depend on the place.

“Seattle has been slower to reopen. The people in Seattle have been less willing to go out and restaurants have been closed for longer. So it depends on the market, it depends on the weather, it depends on whether the people in these cities are ready to come out,” he said.

As temperatures drop, restaurants are weighing the benefits and costs of seating diners outdoors.

“There's all these hoops we have to jump through for less dollars,” Jasinski said. “I haven't heard of anybody else having any brilliant ideas that don't cost a ton of money.”