It’s a cool, 30-degree evening in Detroit, Michigan, and downtown’s parkside restaurant Lumen is brimming with customers. Business people still dressed in their work attire gather around bar tables, sipping from tulip glasses and cocktail tumblers. However, the hottest table tonight is not in the dining room — it’s outside, beneath one of Lumen’s patio igloos. These glowing geometric bubbles have an hour and a half wait at 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, during one of the coldest months of the year.
At a time of year when restaurants usually retire their outdoor furniture to storage, suddenly restaurant patrons across the United States are clamoring for a chance to sit on the patio. Here at Lumen, the bright interiors inside the geodesic domes cast a warm light over large groups of bundled up visitors. They lounge on furnishings fit for an Aspen ski lodge and snuggle under faux fur blankets for an added layer of coziness beyond the toasty warmth of space heaters. This particular restaurant doesn’t require a deposit or a minimum food and beverage purchase, but some restaurants have learned that they can charge a premium for the experience of sitting in a glorified snow globe — from $400 on a regular night in some locations all the way up to $1,000 dollars per dome during the 2018 Super Bowl.
“I’m getting 50 emails a day from people trying to reserve igloos,” says Mike Duganier, owner of Latin-Asian restaurant Publico in Atlanta (where the current average low temperature is 33 degrees). “And we’re in January. At night time my patio is on a wait — in January.” In December, Publico unveiled a half dozen domes on its expansive, pet-friendly patio, causing a minor sensation among customers. Unlike the restaurant’s main dining room, which is primarily first come, first served, Duganier decided to implement an online reservation system exclusively for the patio igloos to help deal with demand. Customers must also agree to a $30 per person food and beverage minimum to snag a spot in their very own winter hut for 2 hours.
The structures allowed Publico to maximize its footprint in a season when the 20-table outdoor space would otherwise be inhospitable. Duganier originally spotted the igloos on a New York restaurant’s social media account and decided he had to have them. He consulted an electrician to upgrade the electrical in his outdoor space to allow for more lights and space heaters, and also invested in a few modest decorations. There was an initial financial investment in the patio infrastructure, but Duganier says the additional 50 seats nestled inside igloos have been a game changer for his less-than-a-year-old business. Posts on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook bring valuable, free marketing to the restaurant, he says as a passerby on the street paused to photograph the igloos at mid-day. Duganier is banking that the private outdoor dining spaces will be a big hit when Atlanta hosts the Super Bowl in February.
Anecdotally, the patio dome trend appears to have spread exponentially from 2017 to 2018, with structures bubbling up like mushrooms outside restaurants from the bar at the iconic Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. to the rooftop at Cafe Benelux in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Gardenigloo, one of the largest manufacturers of the patio igloo, was founded in 2013 and at the time sold primarily to European customers, but established an American branch in 2016. Gardenigloo’s geodesic domes come with optional covers ranging from mosquito nets to partially enclosed canopies and the clear PVC variety that have become cold-weather staples. Not including the cost of heaters or decor, they retail for around $849 each — a price neighborhood restaurants (particularly those in northern climates) are gladly paying.
“When we first created our product we were thinking about household users,” says Gardenigloo USA owner Volkan Alevok. The clear geodesic domes were ideal for all-season residential patios and pop-up greenhouses. But almost as soon as the plastic tent was introduced to the market, restaurants and bars began using the product as a way to extend their patio seasons.
Alevok can trace the U.S. trend back to New York’s 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar, when the trendy establishment purchased approximately 50 Gardenigloo. “People saw the videos and the photos on Instagram, and they demanded the product from us,” he says. “After that we had to make the product even tougher, because household users and commercial users are two different things.” Alevok says that through trial and error his company has improved the plastic-covering: The company began using a thicker, sturdier plastic material and better zippers to withstand repeated opening and closing of the domes.
The infinitely Instagrammable patio igloo experiences not only help market the business that’s using them, but also the product itself. Alevok says he doesn’t rely on any direct marketing to restaurants beyond Facebook and Instagram. Food industry clients now account for roughly 50 percent of Gardenigloos’ geodesic dome sales, and the demand continues to grow rapidly.
When Lumen opened last spring, one of its most distinctive features was the expansive patio space complemented by retractable windows. Over the summer, the restaurant became a popular al fresco dining spot; customers gathered around outdoor fireplaces and at patio tables to sip Belgian-style beers and snack on cheese plates. As fall approached, it became apparent to chef Gabby Milton that Lumen would need to find a way to extend that outdoor feel into Michigan’s lengthy and frequently frigid cold season. “We needed something to bring the outdoors in and use the patio, because first of all we needed to fill the space. But second of all, the park is so beautiful, we needed to engage the outdoors.” After exploring various options for heating the patio, Milton and her team eventually proposed that Lumen’s owners invest in patio igloos. The restaurant started out with three of the structures — all from Gardenigloo — but quickly invested in three more to keep up with customer demand.
Lumen’s team served hundreds of customers throughout the fall in the weather resistant geodesic domes. Drop in on any given evening and the wait time for an igloo can stretch to two hours. After the holidays, Milton says she expected the frenzy over the patio spaces to die down, but she’s continuing to field dozens of calls a day. “I would say over 50 percent of our phone calls are still about the igloos,” she says.
Milton admits that there are some logistical challenges to providing service inside a plastic bubble. The restaurant must make sure that there’s plenty of employees manning the phones during service and dealing with additional traffic from customers interested specifically in patio seating. Lumen also elected not to take reservations for the spaces and to make them communal, so that more people can enjoy them at once. Each seating is also limited to a period of an hour and a half.
Unlike in traditional dining room service or patio service, Milton points out, waiters serving customers in the igloos have to walk food from the kitchen out into the cold, unzip the plastic cover, step inside with the food, re-zip the plastic cover, and distribute the food. That means hot food experiences a longer period between leaving the kitchen and reaching customers. “It’s really difficult to keep hot food hot when you’re going outside and it’s freezing,” she says. “That’s one thing we have to be really aware of, and I think being honest with the guests about that and communicating that to them [is important].”
Plastic geodesic domes are clearly a hit with customers, but regulators in some municipalities are scrambling with how to deal with them. The future of the plastic patio tents at a Rochester, Minnesota restaurant La Vetta was recently called into question by the local fire department and building safety officials, who suggested the structures might be in violation of city codes, the Star Tribune reported. Inspectors, in particular, were concerned about the open-flame space heaters and propane tanks La Vetta was using to create a balmy igloo atmosphere; the restaurant quickly remedied the issue. The restaurant is still facing potential issues related to the height of its building as the domes are set up on the rooftop, prompting thousands of local igloo obsessives to sign an online petition titled “Save the rooftop bubbles!!!”
An hour outside of downtown Detroit, restaurant group Union Joints is in the midst of its second winter with patio igloos. Owners Curt Catallo and Ann Stevenson decided to invest in a fleet of geodesic domes from Gardenigloo in 2017 for two of their restaurants — Fenton Fire Hall and Honcho — at the suggestion of an employee. Catallo recalls being so excited that he paid for expedited shipping. “Michiganders like being outside. We’re a pretty hearty bunch,” Stevenson says. “[But] it always was a little sad, bittersweet at the end of the fall when it was getting too chilly to be out and not being able to utilize that patio space. It always felt a little dormant and sad. Being able to activate the patio in the winter, so people still have that indoor-outdoor experience, was the perfect solution to what would otherwise be a little bit of a dull time.”
The new patio dining experience was a big draw for the restaurants, but it also required a lot of trial and error. The zippers in particular were a challenge as they would occasionally get stuck, making it a challenge for servers to move in and out of the structures — and all the while with heat escaping. “The first year, what we learned the hard way is that when it’s like 10 degrees and you’ve got plastic zippers, they break,” Catallo recalls. “We learned a lot and the manufacturers were working with us as their test lab, so we’d give them input.”
This year, the couple committed to a more permanent solution to the zipper issue by manufacturing custom steel and polycarbonate domes for Honcho. The new structures are sturdier and feature traditional doors designed by Union Joints’s carpenter. “The door, for us, was easier on the server and it allowed people to stay a little warmer inside,” Catallo explains.
The geodesic domes might seem like an early winter trend, doomed to peter out by early spring. But that hasn’t been the case so far at Fenton Fire Hall and Honcho. “We haven’t noticed there being any ebbs and flows,” Stevenson says. Catallo notes that a couple recently got married in one of Honcho’s domes, and they’re fielded requests to reserve an igloo space for a proposal in March. “I don’t think that that’s going to happen under a patio heater,” he says. “People are looking for something memorable.”
While the domes themselves can be a logistical challenge when it comes to keeping food dry and hot, Union Joints and their fellow patio igloo converts are invested in giving customers a new style of outdoor dining experience. “There is something a little campy about it, where you get your own little cabin,” Catallo says.
“It has a playful quality, almost like a snow fort would,” Stevenson says. “It’s definitely for people that like that sense of romance and adventure.”
Brenna Houck is editor of Eater Detroit and a reporter for Eater.com.