Restaurants turn to innovative outdoor solutions ahead of winter

Posted at 10:47 AM, Nov 06, 2020

CHICAGO, Ill. -- As coronavirus cases continue to spike, some states are reinstating restrictions on indoor dining. Restaurants already reeling with huge financial strains are trying to find innovative solutions to keep their doors open. Some are thinking outside the box and into a bubble.

“What you're seeing in Washington D.C. and Chicago and elsewhere are local mayors trying to incentivize and help restaurants winterize their outdoor spaces and really doing whatever they can to encourage outdoor dining,” said Mike Whatley, vice president of state and local affairs for the National Restaurant Association.

But with indoor dining shut down in many places across the country, geodesic domes or igloos, tents and mini greenhouses are popping up to help keep diners warm and safe.

The National Restaurant Association says a recent survey indicates 49% of full-service restaurant operators say they are taking actions like installing tents or patio heaters to extend their outdoor dining season.

Restaurant owner Sophie Huterstein and her staff built 14 4x6 greenhouses for use outside her restaurant, The Darling.

“We’ve been utilizing this system of being able to dine together, apart from the moment we reopened after the initial shutdown, as a genuine intent to protect the guests and our staff,” she said.

The idea was inspired by an installation in Amsterdam. Each one can accommodate two to four people and is helping sustain her business while indoor dining is restricted.

“You are sitting closely in there, but it is our hope that no one would dine with people that they are not very familiar with,” said Huterstein.

Safety experts say this type of seating can keep people safe if there’s frequent cleaning and ventilation.

California resident Sarah Moffat dined inside a greenhouse for the first time.

“I don't know if we're gonna have a sense of normalcy ever again,” said Moffat. “But to have moments that you can share with friends and your close loved ones in a safe environment is kind of amazing.”

The City of Chicago challenged designers from across the country to propose winter dining solutions.

Atlanta-based national design firm ASD/Sky created a modular cabin inspired by ice fishing huts that would fit inside the footprint of a parking space. Their goal was to create a reason to stay on-site instead of taking out.

“People just want an experience that’s what we're lacking right now,” said ASD Sky Designer Nicole Grillet. “So that was the driver behind creating this idea.”

Urban development designers Neil Reindel and Flo Mettetal were inspired by Legos with their "Block Party" concept. The compact, heated two-seater eat-in modules can be deployed and retracted.

“Much like how you would previously push tables together, the idea would be that these frames of two could be connected in increments of two and you could have larger or smaller groups based on that,” said Reindel.

It’s something they say could be utilized anywhere in the country.

“It was really meant to be user friendly and kind of fit the needs of the restaurant wherever it is,” said Mettetal.

With 40% of restaurant owners worried about staying in business through February, many are banking on futuristic dine-in concepts to help them brave the uncertain winter ahead.