US restaurants look for ways to weather winter

Tim Carman

THE WASHINGTON POST – Bonnie and Israel Morales felt the impact of Kachka Alfresca from the start. The couple behind Kachka, a popular Russian restaurant in Portland, introduced outdoor dining in June, on a stretch of concrete previously used as a parking lot.

Nearly 30 picnic tables, each under its own tent and some covered in a blue-and-white striped cloth that evoked Russian naval shirts, were spread far enough apart to keep diners at a safe distance. Portlanders ate it up.

Revenue at Kachka exploded from USD2,000 a day, said Bonnie Morales, to USD6,000 a day, enough to hire back an additional 20 employees.

Despite its success, Bonnie and Israel Morales don’t plan to prep the tables for winter. They’re not going to rent outdoor heaters (assuming they can even find them) or construct greenhouse-like pods to shelter diners from the elements.

They killed off Kachka Alfresca on October 11 in favour of other ways to generate revenue, including takeout and retail sales of their frozen dumplings and forthcoming horseradish drink.

“Portland is moderate as far as temperatures go, which makes it a little bit easier, but it is so rainy that I just don’t think it will be pleasant,” Bonnie Morales told The Washington Post. “You’re literally in this damp cold, sort of dreary environment. It never really rains that hard, but it’s always present.”

Customers brave rainy-day weather to dine at Kachka in Portland. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Chef de cuisine Francisco Leyva prepares takeout orders at Kachka

The pandemic has already devastated the United States’ (US) restaurant industry. Millions of jobs have been lost, and nearly 100,000 restaurants have closed permanently or indefinitely since the outbreak, according to a recent survey from the National Restaurant Association.

Restaurateurs are expected to lose USD240 million this year, and the worst may be yet to come as winter looms, threatening to slow down or shut down outdoor dining spaces that have given owners hope that they might survive this crisis until a vaccine is widely available.

The cold-weather months are when patios are supposed to close and diners automatically move indoors to embrace the warmth of hearths, central heating and the crush of fellow diners.

But as more evidence is compiled, a picture is emerging that doesn’t bode well for restaurants this winter: An association between indulging in long meals in indoor spaces and an increase in coronavirus cases. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that nearly 300 adults who tested positive for the virus were more than twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks before getting sick than people who tested negative.

Restaurant associations, local governments and chef-owners across the country have been scrambling for months to find solutions to weather the winter: Investments in heated igloos and tents. Air filtration units to help prevent indoor spread of the virus. Even alternative revenue streams, such as multicourse takeout meals and in-home restaurant experiences.

Failing to find a solution could prove fatal to more in the industry. The mortality estimates range from 40 per cent (the percentage of operators who don’t expect to survive the next six months, according to the National Restaurant Association survey) to 85 per cent, a figure in an April working paper by National Bureau of Economic Research. Countless operators are hoping for relief from a bill introduced this year by Representative Earl Blumenauer.

Dubbed the Restaurants (Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive) Act, it would set aside USD120 billion to help independent restaurants and eateries with fewer than 20 locations.

The Act has 203 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House and 40 bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate. Blumenauer’s office is hopeful it will be part of the next relief package in the House, which could be voted on this week.

“I believe without the Restaurants Act passing, we are going to see an extinction event for restaurants,” said chef, restaurateur and TV personality Andrew Zimmern during an August conference call with reporters. “The mounting debt, the crushing variables that we’re suffering under have caused my company to close two of our restaurants because we don’t see any financial light at the end of the tunnel and we simply can’t continue to haemorrhage money.”

Municipal governments are getting into the act, too. Last week, Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a USD4 million Streatery Winter Ready Grant programme to help restaurants with a permit for a summer garden, sidewalk cafe or ‘streatery’ (a section of public street using for dining) prepare for winter.

If they qualify, recipients will receive USD6,000 grants for the costs of such upgrades as tents, heaters, furniture, marketing and website improvements.

“What we wanted to do was make sure they had some working capital to make that pivot and to hopefully stay open as we get into those colder months,” said Planning and Economic Development Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio. But with about 1,200 outdoor dining permit holders in the District and little over 660 grants available, some restaurants may miss out on the money if they haven’t moved fast to apply, Falcicchio noted.

Chicago is getting more creative to help its restaurant community. The city partnered with IDEO, an international design firm, to launch the Winter Dining Challenge. Civic leaders looked to crowdsource ideas on how to “stimulate and encourage safe outdoor dining and entertainment” during months when the mercury rarely climbs above freezing. They received 643 submissions, including some from as far away as Shanghai and Lima, Peru.

There are the predictable suggestions for covered outdoor tables, such as “nosh pods”, based on snow globes, or dining tents with sliding walls.

There are ambitious and quirky ideas, such as the fleet of soft-sided tractor trailers that would roll into neighbourhoods and create temporary sidewalk cafes, or heated tablecloths, which would cover not just a four-top but also the diners around that four-top.

But there are also ideas simply to encourage outdoor dining during winter, including a campaign that basically suggests Chicagoans need to suck it up and embrace their frozen landscape.

“There is only so much that design can do in terms of physical structures, but what can we do culturally?” asked the city’s Neighbourhood and Economic Development Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar.

“What sort of ideas do people have to really change the culture of hibernation in winter to embracing the winter like we see in places like northern Europe?”

The city is combing through the submissions to determine which ones meet fire and building codes. From there, a 10- to 15-person jury – mostly restaurant professionals – will select at least three winners, who will receive a USD5,000 award and funding to start pilot programmes as soon as late October.

If the pilots prove successful, the city will seek corporate and philanthropic contributions to expand the concepts.

“I think it’s a cool initiative,” said Executive Chef and partner with the Chicago-based Pioneer Tavern Group, which includes Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern. But as “individual operators and chefs, we’re trying to figure out how to save ourselves during this time,” Jupiter continued.

“I think that the politicians need to do their part, do their jobs, and make sure that businesses, especially in the restaurant industry, are given the tools to survive, instead of kind of having people come up with these ideas that will get shot down.”

The patio at Frontier is configured to operate year-round, Jupiter said. The problem, however, is that when the retractable roof closes and the walls go up, the patio becomes an indoor space and is subject to the current guidance of 25 per cent capacity, or less than half the diners it did during summer.

Jupiter would like to see the city expand to 50 per cent capacity, which would help Ina Mae’s, too, because it has a small dining room. But he’s not holding his breath.

“Instead of trying to hope that a miracle happens and the capacity gets bigger, we want to try to make our products as mobile-friendly as possible and as creative as possible,” Jupiter said.

Like countless others, Jupiter views ‘winterisation’ as something more than preparing the patio for cold weather. Winterisation is, in a larger sense, a way to insulate restaurants from the potential financial damage of the coming season, and owners are getting creative on how to increase revenue to make up for lost patios, outdoor gardens and the like.

Co-founder of Jester Concepts in Minneapolis Brent Frederick is banking on technology to calm consumer fears as diners move indoors during Minnesota’s frigid winters. He’s installed 20 bipolar ionisation units in all four Jester restaurants, at the total cost of almost USD10,000.

“It’s a pretty simple machine that produces millions of ions that attach to pathogens and particles in the air,” Frederick said. “That means we have clean air coming out of our ductwork, and it’s not being recycled. Viruses are not being recycled through the air.”

Others, such as Jupiter in Chicago or chef-restaurateur Barbara Lynch in Boston, are relying on their creativity in the kitchen (sometimes combined with technology) to get their businesses through winter. Jupiter has developed family meal kits that serve two to four people. He’s also looking to jump-start his cooking series on Instagram Live, in which participants buy ingredients from the restaurant before taking part. In Boston, Lynch is considering a similar embrace of technology to host events such as virtual classes. “Our planning is focussed around the question: How can we ensure an at-home dining experience doesn’t skimp on the quality and level of hospitality our guests know and expect?” Lynch said in a statement to The Washington Post.

But some owners are launching pop-ups or takeaway concepts within their established restaurants, side hustles now commonly known as ghost kitchens. Espita Mezcaleria owner Josh Phillips introduced Ghostburger in late August. He figured the hamburger concept would be ‘killing it’ if it brought in USD8,000 a week. In its first week, Ghostburger generated over USD25,000. It still generates more than USD22,000 a week, Phillips said, enough that he has expanded staff and now sells Ghostburger items in the dining room.

Espita’s mind-set, Phillips said, was not to ask customers to endure a semi-warm patio just to benefit a struggling business in winter, but to create items that would actually make customers happy as the temperatures drop. It’s essentially the same philosophy that drove Bonnie and Israel Morales to shut down their profitable Alfresca concept and focus on takeaway and retail instead. For Bonnie Morales, indoor dining during a pandemic carries an undercurrent of fear, which is antithetical to hospitality.

“I don’t want to welcome people inside,” she said. “Do I really want to give people this experience that makes them feel unwelcomed and where they feel uncomfortable, too? I just feel like this is just not what I want to be doing right now.”