The pandemic has made dining as we previously knew it impossible, and serving customers outside has been one somewhat promising lifeline. So have some food trucks, with an inherently outdoor nature, as well to-go cocktails enjoyed by drinkers on the go or in parks.
But none of those are well positioned for crappy winter weather — and as has been widely observed, the solutions that might help restaurants adjust to winter don’t come cheap.
We brought together Eater editors Monica Burton, Brenna Houck, and Ashok Selvam for our Eater Talks event series to break down all the specific challenges restaurants face this season as well as the array of creative solutions. Below are lightly edited excerpts from their conversation, moderated by Eater editor Madeleine Davies, as well as a full video recording of the talk.
Restaurants are making moves to make winter outdoor dining doable.
Monica Burton, based in NYC: “I’ve seen [the plastic dome] ‘igloos’, I’ve seen cabanas — these are the things that are popping up recently.... I’ve also started to see some heat lamps pop up to extend that further.”
Brenna Houck, based in Detroit: “A lot of places [in Michigan] have also installed takeout windows, which is kind of an easy way to do grab-and-go stuff if you're on foot and take it to a park bench and eat if you're outside. And definitely a lot of patio fireplaces and patio heaters are starting to pop up everyone, in addition to the domes.”
Ashok Selvam, based in Chicago: “Food trucks, which have never been a big part of the landscape in Chicago — I’ve seen a couple of restaurants throw in their efforts toward that, thinking it’s more mobile.”
But many outdoor solutions are an expensive gamble that many restaurants can’t afford.
Houck: “The cost of installing these things is pretty high. I spoke to one company that manufactures these ‘garden igloos,’ as they’re called, these plastic domes, and they have had to hike prices because of just the nature of the pandemic right now and costs of all sorts of goods are going up. So they cost about $1,200 to begin with, and if you’re considering all the things that go into that to make those places comfortable, like blankets or a heater — those are all pretty big-ticket investments that now all sorts of restaurants around the country that didn’t normally try to have outdoor seating are now clamoring to get...
You also have to think about how many people are going to be willing to go and sit out there, and is the cost going to balance out the benefit of having those spaces? A lot of places around here [in Detroit] take reservations in advance for those igloos and charge a flat fee to rent them, and that’s a way to judge how many people want to come and sit in your igloo, to help the business determine the cost of that space for a certain amount of time. But for other sorts of seating situations, it’s kind of a toss-up.”
Selvam: “These plastic domes are so pricey. I don’t know if restaurants other than the bigger groups will be able to afford it. We’re seeing them in downtown Chicago, but in the neighborhoods, on the North and South sides, not so much.”
Houck: “It’s also really unpredictable, if you're going to invest thousands of dollars in all this outdoor seating equipment and then suddenly an [official] at the state level says it’s not safe for anyone to be dining outdoors right now. Then you’ve still invested these thousands of dollars in this equipment that you no longer can use... and that is a gamble that some people are not willing to take because they just do not have the financial ability to do it.”
Ultimately, the most realistic solution may be turning back to takeout, in its various forms.
Selvam: “Tomorrow, indoor dining in [Chicago] is going to be shut down. The governor announced that earlier this week. So it’s really going to be delivery and takeout that’s going to drive sales again.”
Houck: “I’ve seen quite a few places are now investing in takeout... [especially] some businesses are trying to get around these third-party apps that obviously charge a lot to individual businesses to deliver the food from the restaurant to your house. So some businesses are trying to hire employees and invest in their own vans and start delivering food themselves. That’s another way that people are trying to strategize around this cold weather situation — some places are shutting down dine-in service and then transitioning back to a takeout-only situation just for the winter, kind of going dormant but still keeping their kitchens open.”
Burton: “It’s been really great to see restaurants do meal kits and more upscale takeout. I’m even seeing restaurants offer wine clubs, which will bring in more revenue for them.”
Houck: “I’m seeing more businesses do Thanksgiving to-go packages than I’ve seen in past years — because I think people are so tired of cooking and also because [the restaurants] aren't preparing for all these holiday parties and aren’t getting those bookings anymore. Also the holiday pop-up bars that it seems we have every year now are turning into to-go cocktails, because that’s a legal thing we can do now in Michigan. I’ve also seen [restaurants and bars offer] different kind of packages — like fun ways to make a nice movie night, or something like that — things that try to making staying home more special.”
Burton: “When it comes to meal kits, I just got one from Xi’an Famous Foods where I got to hand-pull my own noodles at home, which is really fun and makes a great gift or just fun thing to do. I think a lot of restaurants meals that go beyond regular takeout that really add variety to your pandemic dining in a way that’s fun and not-sad-takeout.
One of the nicer things that’s happened to me during the pandemic is that my friends will send me food or send me drinks if I’m having a bad week or just because. And going into the holiday season, that’s a great way to continue to support restaurants: Send your friends food and drinks and nice things.”
Watch the entire panel conversation: