Winter Is Coming to Restaurants

Outdoor eateries scramble to stay open and keep diners comfortable.

September 30, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—As businesses reopened, those providing foodservice options turned to outdoor dining to attract customers and keep their doors open. But as winter approaches, many are having a hard time finding—and paying for—outdoor heaters, according to Restaurant Business Online.

This is the new business challenge for independent operators, who’ve had to contend with the nationwide pandemic, as well civil unrest and wildfires in some parts of the U.S.

“We’re trying to order heaters or rent them, and they are close to not existent or very, very expensive,” said Benjamin Prelvukaj, co-owner of New York City-based Benjamin Restaurant Group.

Prelvukaj said he ordered 10 patio heaters from Costco but only received three. The company from which he rents his outdoor tents and umbrellas wants to charge him $100 a day per heater. He said he’s trying to negotiate that price with them.

“I’d have to turn that table three times to make some money,” he said. “You’ve got to do something to give me a break. You can’t forget next year will come, and people are going to remember those things.”

Cold-weather cities have differing rules around outdoor heaters and restaurants. In Chicago, restaurant operators can purchase propane or natural gas heaters and fire pits so long as they are kept away from combustible materials, like tents. Restaurants must also have fire extinguishers and take precautions to keep staff and customers safe in the event of a storm.

Electric heaters must be installed by a licensed electrical contractor, the city said, and in New York City, propane heaters are prohibited in restaurants.

“It’s very, very challenging,” said Payal Sharma, owner of an Indian restaurant in the East Village. “Outside [dining] is not created with proper power lines. We’ve had to add so much additional power, which, of course, cost us. We had to buy the heaters with the proper connections. They needed to be commercial grade.”

Sharma has purchased about 20 electric heaters for her outdoor dining space and had to hire an electrician, install additional power lines and put in new electrical breakers, a process that has cost about $4,000 so far, she said.

“I’m hoping the weather stays OK at least until the end of November,” Sharma said. “Indoor dining will only be 25%. That gives us no ability to make money. The bills keep on billing. Liquor has to be bought. Staff must be paid. Without the outdoor seating, we would not be able to do close to those numbers.”

Despite the heater shortage, New York City restaurants will be allowed to keep their outdoor dining spaces indefinitely, and even expand seating in some cases, Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced.

According to Nation’s Restaurant News, more than 10,000 New York City restaurants have adopted outdoor dining, saving an estimated 90,000 jobs. The New York City Hospitality Alliance has been advocating to extend outdoor dining and permit heat lamps, which are regulated in the city. The alliance hopes to see propane and natural gas heaters allowed on sidewalks only, and an announcement on that issue is expected soon.

The new measures include allowing restaurants to expand seating in front of adjacent properties if the restaurants file the appropriate paperwork and the next-door property owners formally agree to it. The city is expected to issue guidance for sturdier outdoor setup requirements this week.

Outdoor tents will be allowed, but if they’re completely closed, they will be limited to 25% capacity—the same as indoor dining, which goes into effect today. Partial tent enclosures, with at least 50% of the sidewall surface being open, will not have those capacity restrictions.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.

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