The patio pivot has served as a coronavirus remedy for many Richmond restaurants since the pandemic began.
But now they’re scrambling for the next big shift: finding creative ways to entice diners to continue eating outdoors through the colder months.
Some local eateries and bars recently began deploying tents, heaters and other equipment to make sitting outside more appetizing, all at an added expense in a year when excess revenue has been hard to come by.
Pizza and Beer of Richmond at 2553 W. Cary St. in the Fan recently propped up a 30-foot-by-40-foot tent to cover its patio for the winter. The sizable patio accounts for about half of the restaurant’s overall capacity, so making it a viable eating area is worth the effort for its ownership group, EAT Restaurant Partners.
“Restaurants will have to be creative with how to save their (outdoor) space. … It’s affordable to do if you know the traffic will be there. We have faith our restaurants will maintain popularity,” EAT marketing and hospitality director Chris Staples said.
But the idea isn’t easy to pull off and there’s also permitting involved with localities.
The city approved PBR’s permit to set up the tent into mid-January. The tent for now is enclosed on three of its four sides.
Staples said it wasn’t yet clear exactly what the total cost will be to winterize PBR’s outdoor seating, though EAT bought a $200 commercial heater for the space. Though the heater was affordable, fuel costs are unknown.
“The larger the space you have, the harder it will be to heat and condition,” Staples said.
PBR is part of the ownership group’s outdoor project. Some of its restaurants already have patios with installed heating units. The company is interested in setting up tents at Lucky AF, its new sushi joint in Scott’s Addition, where it has about half its tables outside. The nearby Boulevard Burger and Brew is also expected to get a heated tent.
The state’s reopening plan, Forward Virginia, considers outdoor dining areas enclosed by a tent to be indoor spaces. Accordingly, an enclosed tent is subject to the same requirements as an indoor dining space, including face covering requirements when customers aren’t eating or drinking as well as distancing requirements as per phase three of the plan.
The soon-to-launch Sonora Cantina & Rooftop at 11 W. Broad St. has had an outdoor space in its business plan from the get-go, but its planned mid-November opening amid a global pandemic motivated its owners to buy a custom tent for its rooftop deck.
“It’s a huge investment and if it wasn’t for COVID, we probably wouldn’t do it,” said Neal Patel, a co-owner of LX Group, which owns the downtown restaurant. “We don’t see an end (to the pandemic) in sight.”
Between legal and permitting fees, along with the purchase of the tent itself, Patel said somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000 has been invested thus far to winterize the restaurant’s outdoor space. He said they are still figuring out how to heat the tent.
The tent will cover about 30 seats on the roof, which will come as welcome reinforcements to the approximately 70 seats the restaurant expects to have set out when it opens.
LX Group also owns Kabana Rooftop at 700 E. Main St., but Patel said there aren’t any plans to winterize it because it would cost too much.
As restaurants scramble to beat the weather, The Shed, a local rental company, has done a brisk business in tent rentals to restaurants in the last three weeks, CEO Daniel Perrone said. The company has worked with 150 restaurants (PBR among them) in Richmond, Denver (where it has another location) and other markets.
“Restaurateurs are beginning to understand that this will be a way of life for a couple of years now,” Perrone said. “There are some people who just won’t come because they fear the disease. But there are the other half of people (who want an indoor dining experience).”
Besides the obvious tents and heaters, some restaurants are opting for extra dressings such as outdoor flooring (which also helps keep out the cold), lights and even planters and decor to dress up tent spaces. Earlier in the pandemic, restaurants that wanted shade tents grabbed whatever they could find. Now, with tents primed to be a more permanent fixture, some restaurants are being more thoughtful about the spaces, he said.
Three city-based restaurants applied for tent permits related to regular dining service between Aug. 1 and Nov. 2, according to the city’s records. Numbers from Henrico and Chesterfield were not available by press time.
But while some restaurants invest in measures to keep outdoor seating going, others have decided to bring their outdoor service to an end.
The Shaved Duck, a Midlothian restaurant that took advantage of new outdoor dining rules this summer, closed down its makeshift parking-lot patio in early October. Virginia restaurants were given the nod to reopen their indoor dining in a limited fashion in June.
Lauren Wrenn, Shaved Duck’s marketing director, said the decision to step back from outdoor eating and focus on the indoor dining room was driven by the weather.
“It was becoming unpredictable. It would be either too hot during the day or too cold once the sun went down,” she said.
The restaurant’s outdoor seating arrangement was already an operational challenge because it wasn’t a purpose-made space. Carryout remains steady even after the dining room reopened, though the dining room is seeing use as well, she said.
Nationally, September restaurant sales were $55.6 billion, or up about 2 percent ($1.1 billion) month-over-month, according to an October report by the National Restaurant Association. That’s down from $65 billion in September 2019.
Seasonally-adjusted August sales for 2020 came in at $54.4 billion. September sales at restaurants were down 15 percent (almost $10 billion) compared to sales in January and February.
Between March, when the pandemic’s effects were first felt in the United States and restaurants temporarily shuttered dining rooms, and September, restaurant sales were down almost $162 billion compared to expected levels, based on unadjusted data, the report stated.