Faced with capacity limits and bans on indoor-dining altogether, Michigan’s restaurants have taken quite the toll during the pandemic. Forced to innovate, many have rearranged their business model to focus on takeout and delivery.
To skirt limits on indoor dining, many restaurateurs are investing in heat lamps, igloos and other devices to keep their guests warm enough to dine outdoors in Michigan’s cold climate. In a testament to the advancements of heating technology or Michigander’s ability to brave the cold, it seems to be working.
The English Inn in Eaton Rapids adopted the concept early on. Customers are able to dine in what’s essentially a miniature greenhouse. The English Inn began trying the concept out a couple months ago, but now temperatures are much more fearsome. With winter in full effect, owner Erik Nelson said customers maintain that the greenhouse huts, which have received some upgrades, are still up to snuff.
“As soon as temperatures dipped below 40 degrees, I realized I needed to something more. I purchased additional 1,500 watt heaters for each unit,” Nelson said. “I had to get creative with extension cords, but they’re toasty now.”
Nelson said the little greenhouses and their heaters were a worthy investment in combatting the lost revenue from coronavirus restrictions. Peanut Barrel owners Joe and Jennifer Bell have also purchased an array of heaters.
“We run a row of propane-fueled heaters down to the center of the patio so they will keep our customers warm,” Joe Bell said. “The response has been really good, maybe not so much when there’s snow, but we’ve had a lot of business on the weekends. People like it.”
The Bells debuted the heat lamps in September, but they have since taken an additional step by passing out blankets, which are regularly sanitized, so customers can keep their legs comfy as well. Though the Bells believe it’s not possible to provide total comfort, the heaters and blankets do more than enough to “take the edge off.”
“Because they can’t do indoor dining, people are willing to take the extra mile to have a cocktail or a burger outdoors,” Jennifer Bell said. “We just wish we had more seats. Everyone in the business is trying to stay alive and afloat.”
The People’s Kitchen, which is temporarily closed due to an employee testing positive for COVID-19, has outfitted its outdoor patio for the winter with large heaters and plastic shielding. General manager Jessica Kirkpatrick also suggests bringing a lap blanket.
“Everybody has been coming out and really enjoying it since we’ve opened it up,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’ve quite a few full Saturday and Sundays where we had to turn people away and have them wait.”
While the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association has released statements railing against the indoor dining ban, Nelson, Kirkpatrick and the Bells said it’s just an unfortunate but necessary part of combatting the pandemic.
“I reluctantly support the shutdown. We as restaurateurs need to be able to lean into it and do everything we can do be creative and generate revenue,” Nelson said.
“We have employees that will struggle to provide Christmas for their families, because business simply isn’t there. Even with the heaters, it can be hard for people to eat outside,” Kirkpatrick said. “But we understand that COVID is a real thing and we don’t want people coming in and catching it.”
“Like everybody else in the restaurant business, we look forward to when it ends,” Joe Bell said.
The current ban on indoor dining is set to expire on Sunday (Dec. 20). Fortunately, for the many restaurants that have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus restrictions, there is some relief on the way.
Applications for grants worth up to $15,000 each are now available, thanks to $10 million in funding the Michigan Economic Development Corp. has available due to the state’s Small Business Relief Initiative and the federal CARES Act. To receive a grant, potential recipients must meet several criteria, such as having fewer than 50 employees. Applications are submitted online at MichiganBusiness.org/About-MEDC/COVID19/Relief.
“I hope guests realize that independent restaurants really need their support right now,” Nelson said.