With winter here and a ban on indoor dining still in effect at press time, a handful of intrepid restaurateurs and their adventurous patrons have found inspired, if partial, solutions in outdoor “chalets,” “igloos,” and propane-heated tents.
For some restaurants, “they are everything,” emails Kristin Jonna, co-owner of Vinology. As a fine-dining restaurant, she says, carryout alone doesn’t generate enough sales to make it worth staying open. “However, combined with the chalets, we are finding a way to be viable under the outdoor-only mandate.”
Before the weather edged towards snow, Vinology had a propane-heated tent, and “that worked okay,” says manager Terry Coombe. But after the second ban on indoor dining took effect in December, outdoor guests were chilly, and “no amount of propane heat would accommodate them,” he says. Vinology patrons “expect a certain level of service,” Coombe explains, and in the tents, “it’s a lot harder to [achieve that].” Vinology decided to invest in the chalets, electrically heated, plexiglass enclosures with sliding doors surrounding single tables. They are more expensive and seat fewer people than the tents, but they offer a novel experience that is relatively warm. When outdoor temperatures hover around freezing, “You’re looking at fifty-five degrees inside the chalets,” says Coombe. They keep six propane heaters going as well to warm up outdoor tables not in chalets, at a cost of about $250 a week.
The chalets have drawbacks. Because they steam up, servers can’t see inside them, and “as soon as the server opens the door, the temperature drops,” says Coombe. Other issues are cost, assembly, and storage. Jonna emails that the chalets are “PAINSTAKING” to put together and cannot easily be broken down. At $500 a pop, the restaurant wants to hold onto them over the summer in case Covid-19 is still a concern in the fall, but storing them will be tricky. Neighboring lunch spot First Bite bought its own chalets, and the two restaurants have shared them on a limited basis.
Despite some challenges, Coombe says, the chalets have been a resounding success. “Most restaurants decided to invest in the propane heaters, and they are struggling, but our chalets are all full. They have been so popular that we had to implement a deposit.” Coombe says the idea for the deposit came from another Main Street restaurant, Black Pearl, an early investor in the chalets. By law, outdoor tables can’t be reserved. With a deposit, patrons are in effect making an advanced purchase which allows the restaurant to hold their table. If patrons miss their reservation, they lose their deposit. Patrons are happy to comply, and the chalets are fully booked days in advance.
Sales at Vinology were still down 50 percent in 2020. Black Pearl is doing slightly better. “I feel good,” says Jacob Doyal, a bar manager and new investor in the restaurant. “We’re trying to roll with the punches. We’re about 35 percent down and not more because of the outdoor space.”
Other Main Street area eateries with outdoor enclosures include Shalimar, TAQ Taqueria (which calls them “greenhouses”), and Blom Meadworks (which terms them “huts”). At Stadium and Packard, Black Diesel coffee calls its miniature geodesic domes “igloos,” while the new Drip House across from Michigan Stadium opted for a multi-table tent.
Sava’s on State St. also opted for a tent. With business down between 80 and 90 percent, the restaurant didn’t feel it had the funds to invest in chalets, says manager Hannah Knowlton. “Both ends are open. and we have direct air flow,” says Knowlton. “On some of the more mild days it’s been a major component of the business.”
Because Sava’s is takeout only, “it would be hard to estimate exactly how much the patio is affecting our numbers,” she says. “Guests come in and order, and we bring everything out to them on the patio. It can be snowing sideways, and there are still people who want to sit outside.”