Matt Kealy has had residents offer him cash to buy the three big propane-powered heaters he uses to heat the outdoor dining terrace at drafthouse, his pub and restaurant in downtown Janesville.
He’s not selling.
Kealy ordered the bell tower-shaped heaters last fall around the time of drafthouse’s grand opening. At the time, cold weather had creeped in, but the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t part of the picture.
Now, Kealy’s 24-seat terrace at the corner of North Main and East Milwaukee streets is becoming a linchpin in his business model. Kealy said he’s seen about half his dine-in volume in the last few months opt to use the outdoor seating—a trend he attributes directly to COVID-19 and the risk some consumers feel when it comes to dining inside.
That makes his earlier purchase of gas-fired patio heaters seem all the more crucial. Kealy hopes to keep drafthouse’s patio dining scene warm, cozy and rolling along until late this fall—maybe even later if the snow holds off.
Kealy is one of a handful of downtown bar and grill owners who offer outdoor spaces—and one of a few establishments that plan to heat the spaces as best they can to continue to attract outdoor diners once Wisconsin’s late fall chill sets in.
So far this year, people have been slow to return to dining inside restaurants, even as states have lifted bans on indoor crowds.
COVID-19 cases have hit spikes in Wisconsin and elsewhere recently, and customer volumes inside restaurants remain at about 50% of capacity, according to recent national analyses of retail foot traffic.
The dearth, in part, is because many restaurant operators have adhered to local health department recommendations on crowd size limits. Many restaurants have shifted focus during recent warm-weather months to outside dining in spaces they either already operated or improved to make room for more seating.
Kealy hopes for a seasonable fall, one warm during the day but cool enough in the afternoons and nights to draw diners who like the idea of a warm, gas-lit patio on a crisp fall evening.
“I really think this is the year that people are going to stay outside to dine as long as they can,” Kealy said. “We’re trying to have the large-city feel. When you go to downtown Chicago, people sit outside with those heaters on as long as they can.
“We realized that that outdoor space is important to customers with or without this pandemic,” he added. “But especially with the pandemic, we want to optimize our seating as long as we can. You want to keep your customers that are more comfortable eating outside right now happy, and keep everyone as safe as you can.”
Matt Schreier owns and operates The Looking Glass, a bar and grill next door to drafthouse. It has a fenced courtyard with an outdoor bar, beer garden and dining area.
The Looking Glass’ patio is a summer hot spot—and it has recently drawn a lot of guests because it’s along a block of downtown where a gaggle of artists recently dressed up buildings with giant painted murals.
Schreier’s patio has perhaps the best view of one of the new murals—a conceptual portrait of a Black woman and a Native American woman meant as a statement on women’s suffrage.
The Looking Glass owner plans this fall to install overhead heating above the outdoor bar and on the patio. He is also considering installing a natural gas fire pit on the patio for ambience.
Schreier didn’t say what the project will cost, but he hopes the installation will spur outdoor dining until late in the year.
He said during the crisp, golden weeks of fall, locals tend to enter a renaissance of eating outdoors, an aesthetic perhaps forged in part by the grand tradition of Oktoberfest.
“You get a juicy burger and pumpkin beer,” Schreier said.
Rule of thumb, Schreier said, is that in Wisconsin, outdoor dining tends to become seasonally passé once the first traces of snow fly. But he and Kealy both said they’ve gotten indications that their regulars’ appetites for outdoor food and libations might continue into the frosty weeks of late fall.
People tend to cling to the few consumer experiences they can find that might allow them some feelings of normalcy in an uncertain time. Dining out with friends or family is one of those experiences, they said.
“I’ve got customers telling me if it’s 40 degrees, don’t worry. They’ll wear a coat and they’ll sit outside because of the COVID environment,” Schreier said. “They just feel more comfortable being outside. I think if we get the heaters set up right, we could go into even late November outside.
“Even once it snows here, we’ll be clearing it off the patio as best we can,” he added. “I see people wanting to sit outside late in the year. I really do.”
Lark, a downtown cocktail and foodie restaurant on South Main Street, has had the good fortune of sparking outdoor seating during a string of summer concerts at the city’s Marvin Roth Pavilion across the street. Those Tuesday- night concerts have drawn hundreds of people to a socially-distanced live music experience.
Lark owner Joan Neeno said the concerts have kept Lark’s four sidewalk and terrace tables humming.
The Marv’s concert series recently wrapped up for the season, and Neeno said she has begun to see a migration of outdoor diners back inside Lark. She believes that has to do with the weather, but maybe also because the restaurant practices physical distancing measures that keep customers at tables far away from each other, and because staff wears face coverings. Lark staff also asks customers to cover their faces with masks if they move around the dining room.
Recent national headlines have hit on apparent shortages in large space heaters designed to warm outdoor seating areas. Especially in the upper Midwest.
Neeno said Lark plans to keep its outdoor seating on the sidewalk open until as late in the year as it can. Some of Lark’s outdoor dining will be shut down at the end of October when the city sunsets its temporary allowance of some public sidewalks as dining areas downtown.
Neeno said she doesn’t plan to purchase or use outdoor heating equipment this fall.
Kealy believes it might be tough for some restaurants to even find big heaters like the ones he bought earlier this year.
“I’ve heard of people really struggling to find patio heaters now. It was just happenstance that they’d be as crucial as they are now, with the pandemic,” he said. “Boy, are we glad we just happened to be proactive about that.”