CHAMPAIGN — With fall officially here, restaurants that have relied on outdoor dining during COVID-19 are planning for how to continue serving customers during the colder weather.
In central Illinois, there’s only so much they can do.
“There’s a lot of chatter in the restaurant industry about how we should winterize patios,” said Carolyn Farren, owner of Farren’s Pub in downtown Champaign. “That’s great in milder climates, but we’re in central Illinois, and when we go into 50-degree weather, people are not comfortable sitting outside.”
While indoor seating is allowed during Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan — as long as tables are 6 feet apart or separated by barriers — Farren’s has only had outdoor seating so far.
“My staff and myself did not feel safe opening the dining room back on May 28, when we were allowed to,” Farren said.
For the colder weather, Farren said she looked into outdoor heaters, but those “are very expensive, and you really need one per table to even make a dent in someone’s dining experience.”
Instead, Farren’s installed some partitions between tables and added an ultraviolet filter in their HVAC system to disinfect the air.
“We put in the exact same system that Champaign Public Health has in their offices,” Farren said.
Farren’s hopes to reopen its indoor dining room in the next two to three weeks, while keeping its outside dining going “as long as we can,” Farren said.
While she said curbside pickup has helped, and the outdoor dining has been popular, it’s still been operating at reduced capacity.
Farren’s also still has debt from its move last year into the former Radio Mario space, which it renovated, Farren said.
“It’d be much easer to mitigate this if I wasn’t carrying such debt load from the renovation,” she said. “I’ll be the first to tell you I’m nervous. I’m really worried about the winter.”
Poll: Outside attraction
KECdesign, a commercial equipment dealer, recently put out a questionnaire with the local business development organizations for local restaurant owners and customers, asking about their attitudes toward different forms of dining.
More than 65 restaurant and bar owners responded, as well as more than 370 customers, said Dana Mohr, business development liaison with KEC.
About 77 percent of customers have been dining outdoors on an occasional to frequent basis, with 71 percent of them feeling safe to extremely safe doing so.
But a majority said they don’t expect that to continue during the cold months.
And a majority of the owners who responded said they won’t be doing outdoor dining this winter because there’s not enough space, it’s too expensive and it’s too cold.
About 62 percent of customers are considering eating inside because of the cold weather.
“People want to eat out,” KEC owner Dan Proctor said. “It’s part of our culture.”
While a cafe in New York has installed “bubbles” around its outdoor tables, Proctor said that’s not feasible for most restaurants.
The bubbles can be about 10 degrees warmer than the outside, but that’s not too helpful once it gets below 40 degrees, Proctor said.
“We’re just finding a lot of resistance on expense and temperature and inability to heat anything enclosed like this,” he said.
Laura Weis, the president of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, said the survey was issued to help restaurant owners know what makes sense to purchase.
“We are exploring whether we can secure better pricing for winterization supplies by possibly coordinating a large group purchase,” she said.
She said the economic development organizations have been meeting weekly since March to think of ways to help businesses.
“We do know that this issue is on the minds of the local restaurant/bar owners, and many are starting to look what they can each do in their own place to survive the colder months,” Weis said.
Weather or notAt Pour Bros. in Champaign, co-owner Jason Fowler said it’s not planning to operate any differently, as it has allowed indoor dining since Phase 4 began.
“This has been at or near capacity most weekend nights with no problems as far as staff or customer health,” he said.
Its patio is also an option as long as its warm enough.
“We have some outdoor heaters that will get us a little more use of the space, but I do not find it a viable option when the extreme cold hits,” Fowler said.
He said summer capacity has already been down about 50 percent, and “we are planning on business being down quite a bit.”
T.J. Blakeman, Champaign’s senior planner for economic development, said the city is doing what it can to help businesses survive, whether that’s using right-of-ways or finding ways to drive business.
But he acknowledged that Illinois winters can be difficult.
The outdoor heaters “are really meant for 50-degree nights, not 20-degree nights,” Blakeman said. “At the end of the day, we live in central Illinois, and the weather’s going to be an issue.”
“We hope it doesn’t turn cold too quickly,” he said.