Will Richmonders want to eat outside in the winter? Some restaurants are banking on it

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. (Michael Schwartz photo)

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.

Sonora Cantina & Rooftop plans to open at 11 W. Broad St. in mid-November. The restaurant’s owners took the plunge on a tent to make the rooftop seating area viable as the pandemic continues into the winter. (BizSense file)

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.

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Neil Spoonhower
Neil Spoonhower
24 days ago

Do you have a list of restaurants with outdoor, tented seating options?

Brett Hunnicutt
Brett Hunnicutt
24 days ago

If you are a Facebook user you could join the RVA Dine and Drink group and then search the page for “patio” or “tent”. It’s a great resource for keeping up with all the changes.

William Samuels
William Samuels
24 days ago

Please help me understand this. How is an enclosed tent any safer than the inside of a building? An open-sided tent, yes, but I doubt if there is any scientific proof that an enclosed tent is any safer that being inside.

John Signs
John Signs
24 days ago

I was just thinking the same thing.

Brett Hunnicutt
Brett Hunnicutt
24 days ago

Exact comment I was going to make. There is less air circulation than indoors. Makes no sense.

Steve Richmond
Steve Richmond
24 days ago

@WIlliam – There is little to no scientific evidence that supports lockdowns. There is little to no scientific evidence that supports mask wearing. But then, the governor knows best. He’s a doctor.

Boz Boschen
Boz Boschen
24 days ago
Reply to  Steve Richmond

Why are you not comfortable posting under your real name?

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
21 days ago
Reply to  Boz Boschen

Maybe he is ashamed to just be spreading lies?

Al Hardy
Al Hardy
17 days ago
Reply to  Ed Christina

Just like you.

Justin Reynolds
Justin Reynolds
21 days ago
Reply to  Steve Richmond

Science says masks and social distancing help immensely. You’re welcome to your opinion, but not to your own facts.

Garry Whelan
Garry Whelan
24 days ago

It isn’t necessarily safer, but it does increase their capacity. If they can only seat at 50% normal occupancy, businesses have to work out how to double their space to seat what they could before. If a patio is the same size as the inside space, they can double in size, keep distances and get back to closer to 100%. Covering it is just to keep the weather off.

Liz Shield
Liz Shield
24 days ago

The article said an enclosed tent is considered “indoor space” and subject to the same covid protocols (masks, social distancing) as all other indoor spaces. Because of social distancing rules, restaurants aren’t able to seat as many people in their current brick and mortar spaces, so are using the tents to increase their seating capacity.

Jeff Johns
Jeff Johns
24 days ago

Europeans have been dining outdoors in the winter for decades. No tents.

They Just provide some heat lamps or heaters, maybe blankets (possibly electric) and trust that you will be dressed appropriately for the occasion.

I’m Not going inside any tent to eat during COVID.

Steve Richmond
Steve Richmond
24 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Johns

@Jeff – COVID-19 is a virus. It will be with us forever. Just thought you might like to know before making such decisions.

Jeff Johns
Jeff Johns
24 days ago
Reply to  Steve Richmond

Without a vaccine right now.

I’m allowed to reassess when this changes.

Allison Farmer
Allison Farmer
24 days ago

When I shop at a home improvement superstore or a grocery store, I love to count the number of people who are forced to squeeze past closely in front of me due to the lines being spread apart by the covid distancing rule. There are usually at least five people who have close contact with me who otherwise would not.

Andrew reder
Andrew reder
23 days ago

I probably won’t be eating in the tents because that makes no sense, but I’ll be eating at restaurants when I can to preserve the city economy. If we can survive the winter during covid it’s my opinion we can survive anything.

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
21 days ago

I have a question:
Why can’t we block off more streets near resturants for more open air outdoor seating?

Matt Faris
Matt Faris
21 days ago
Reply to  Ed Christina

I’d guess maintaining emergency access woud be one important reason.

Zach Thomas
Zach Thomas
20 days ago
Reply to  Matt Faris

This could certainly be done without installing permanent, concrete benches and tables, or something to that effect, in the middle of the road.

Matt Faris
Matt Faris
19 days ago
Reply to  Zach Thomas

@Zach, I was thinking more about how to move dozens of people, tables and chairs as opposed to re-routing emergency vehicles to longer paths to a destination. I agree that nothing should or could be permanent.

Zach Thomas
Zach Thomas
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt Faris

Yeah, my point was just that there doesn’t have to be immovable, or even movable, anything in the middle of the street. As Ed said below, seating could be put on existing sidewalks and the sides of the road. A lane wide enough for emergency vehicles could be left unobstructed, except for pedestrians who could very easily just step to the side when necessary. I may be oversimplifying it, but I think you may also be overcomplicating it.

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt Faris

Sure but it still seems there could be more done.
For example the down town mall in C-Ville has lots of outdoor seatng, and is closed to traffic, but they leave space for emergency vehicles to get in if needed.
If you closed a two lane street off to traffic, you gain 4 lanes of space. Two lanes taken up by parking and two currently used for traffic.
So you could put tents and seats on 3 lanes of space, and still leave on lane open for emergency vehicles only.

Justin Fritch
Justin Fritch
19 days ago
Reply to  Ed Christina

This certainly matches how these pedestrian streets are typically done elsewhere successfully. The Grace Street restaurant row would be great since that street was already made ineffective for vehicular travel when they switched to two-way.

Matt Faris
Matt Faris
19 days ago
Reply to  Ed Christina

No question, it would certainly depend on the street. As i’m sure you know there was lot of planning that went into the redevelopment of the area in C-ville, a beautiful project. It just isn’t as simple as closing off a street particularly for a short term solution to seating areas.

Zach Thomas
Zach Thomas
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt Faris

Serious question, no snark…why isn’t it just that simple? Or at least close to that simple? It seems like it would actually require less planning to do this as a short-term solution than as a permanent change.

Matt Faris
Matt Faris
19 days ago
Reply to  Zach Thomas

@Zach, I may have used the wrong words, and a get your points and ideas. I just think closing streets for more than a single event cause lots of problems, including liability isues. Ingeneral, I’m all for your ideas.

For example, the localities that expedited permits for parking lot tents was commendable. Public rights-of-ways create a more challenging effort.

Zach Thomas
Zach Thomas
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt Faris

Ok, I see your points. I guess I just view this as mostly a matter of will. I remember the city/police blocking off certain streets in Shockoe Bottom every Friday/Saturday night around bar closing time for safety/security reasons (no idea if they still do that). To me, that shows something similar could be done around dinner time in some areas.

Tim Harper
Tim Harper
19 days ago
Reply to  Matt Faris

I live a few blocks away from PBR. It’s my understanding that the Carytown NYE celebration was ultimately discontinued because many area merchants complained that it was costing them business. Closing off streets can have serious repercussions.

Zach Thomas
Zach Thomas
18 days ago
Reply to  Tim Harper

If I were a business owner, I think I would be embarrassed to admit that a one-day event that brought thousands of people within a short walk of my storefront actually cost me business. Sounds like a “me” problem.

karl hott
karl hott
19 days ago

I observed Steve Richmond dining outdoors. He was also wearing a mask.