Restaurants across Upstate New York, and in fact the nation, have been hit hard by COVID-19 shutdowns. Now, as many fine dining establishments have finally been able to reopen their doors to a mere 25-50% of their capacity, restaurateurs are facing a worrying nip in the air. From the Downtown areas of Greater Rochester to our historic small-town Main Streets, solutions are being sought for the upcoming fall and winter holidays, important seasons which could spell the difference between success and closed doors.
Local restaurant owner Jay Speranza of Tony D’s in Rochester is, in fact, “very much” concerned about the upcoming colder weather. “I am open to any ideas to try to increase capacity,” he said. Others like Steve Foster and Tim Adams of the Red Osier Landmark Restaurant in Stafford are blessed with the space to host their patrons inside while remaining socially distanced and safe. Yet even restaurant owners who are not particularly concerned, like Richard Mogab of Texas Bar-B-Q Joint (Greece, Rochester, Spencerport) said that while he does not currently have cold weather outdoor dining plans in place, he would be interested in learning more about them.
Possible cold weather answers are filtering in from all over, including Chicago. The Windy City, keenly aware of its impending inclement weather, has launched a Winter Dining Challenge in partnership with the Illinois Restaurant Association, BMO Harris Bank, and design company IDEO. Chicagoans have been asked to submit their best solutions for safe, cold weather dining as they vie for prizes of up to $5,000. Several have been both remarkable and inspiring.
One answer to the cold weather quandary is to construct additional spaces outdoors. Possibilities for what this might look like range from luxury domes—geodesic structures resembling glass igloos—to “smart glass” boxes which allow users to control the temperature via the amount of light coming through to cubic pods. Square or rectangular outdoor pods, raised and heated, can be combined to accommodate varying party numbers. These typically come in kits and can also be very adaptable to limited square footage such as a particular option designed for restaurant parking areas. Two such units can fit in each parking space!
Offering easy set up and often more privacy, tents, yurts, teepees, and cubes of fabric are also viable options. Heat, of course, depends on structure. Perforated fabric walls can be combined with forced air wall partitions which essentially push heated air down, preventing the flow of air in from outside the space. To solve heat issues without forced air, one Chicagoan suggested drawing in exhaust from existing kitchen equipment.
Tents and yurts also provide shelter from the elements. Yurts, most associated with traditional Mongolian round tents, covered with a thick, weather resistant material over supported by rafters and a lattice structure which culminate at a central roof ring. Similarly, teepees made of similar materials and supported poles can be minimally heated to provide nearly instantaneous outdoor dining.
In the face of a particularly frigid winter season, ice bars, a tradition most associated with colder European climes, presents flexible—and fun—possibilities. These drinking and even dining spaces carved from ice are unexpectedly cozy as the ice functions as an insulator. Attractive, novel and all but guaranteed to draw a crowd, ice eateries can be structured to suit, perhaps even into ice pods.
Rather than creating new outdoor spaces, some suggest the necessary structures are already available, advocating for a more “mobile” approach. Eying underutilized city buses, these innovators recommend converting them along with train cars into pop up dining spaces. These mobile mini restaurants would be pick up additional diners and park in front of restaurants from which passengers can then order. Buses and train cars which are no longer functional can be remodeled to serve as extensions of existing restaurants.
Some innovations recommend embracing the great outdoors, even when temperatures drop. In keeping with the festive feel of the season, select downtown areas and local Main Streets could close to traffic and transform into bustling holiday wonderlands. Food trucks and vendors could be brought in. Patios and other outdoor dining areas could be warmed with heat lamps and air curtains. “S” shaped dividers with fire pits could be arranged down the center of the street for increased warmth and seating.
Heating could also be centered at the seating itself. Hot stone bowls and plates would add to the ambiance while combating the cold. Chairs with heated cushions—and reusable chemical heat pads—could be set around tables with small fire pits in their centers, providing additional light for diners while warming them from top to bottom. Patrons could also be warmed bottom to top with Japanese Kotatsu. These heated tables consist of a platform over which a thick blanket or futon has been placed. On its center above rests a tabletop, while an electric heater underneath the frame keeps seated guests nice and toasty.
A chill in the air is inevitable, and the cooler weather brings with it opportunities for innovation, creativity and novelty, a sure recipe for success. After months of shutdowns and restrictions, families across the Greater Rochester Area are eager for the chance to get out and enjoy their communities once again. Creating novel and safe environments thanks to continued outdoor dining can give families the dining fun they crave while providing local restaurants with the revenue they seriously need.