As Cold Weather Arrives, Restaurants Consider How To Keep Up Outdoor Dining

October 6, 2020
DENVER OUTDOOR DINING CORONAVIRUSDENVER OUTDOOR DINING CORONAVIRUSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Scott Cons heads for the kitchen at the outdoor dining area at Fire On The Mountain in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, Sept. 30, 2020.

At Fire on the Mountain, a wings spot in the Highlands neighborhood of Denver, the smell of hot sauce filled the air on a recent weekday afternoon. The owner, Andrea West, motioned toward people enjoying the sun at picnic tables set up on a nearby patch of gravel. 

“We call it the beer garden,” West said. “People kind of have to put up with some noise, and some of the hubbub of the neighborhood. But it’s fun. You get to see what’s going on and be part of all the neighborhood happenings.” 

The spot wasn’t always a patio. Prior to the pandemic, people gathered there while waiting for a table in the restaurant’s tiny indoor seating area. Denver’s patio program lets restaurants use sidewalks, parking lots — even some streets — to seat guests. The program was crucial in getting Fire on the Mountain restaurant through the summer months, said West. 

Now, West has to think about what happens when the weather turns cold. Restaurants across Colorado are in a similar bind. Denver recently announced a plan to keep extra space for outdoor dining open until next fall, and Gov. Jared Polis is encouraging more cities to adopt Denver’s approach, said Sonia Riggs, the president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

DENVER OUTDOOR DINING CORONAVIRUSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Scott Cons serves a beer to a patron at the outdoor dining area at Fire On The Mountain in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, Sept. 30, 2020.

But the creative solutions for cold-weather dining can be expensive. For many restaurants, it might not be worth the investment. 

One option West has considered is to erect a tent over a makeshift patio. But for safety reasons, restaurants can’t have propane heaters inside a tent, making it difficult to heat. West doesn’t think customers would enjoy eating in a cold tent.

“I personally would rather go sit on my couch in my pajamas if that were my option,” she said. 

Some customers agree. Laura and Al Gonzalez were having lunch on the patio at Fire on the Mountain, a common pastime for them during the pandemic. But on a recent trip to Breckenridge, they got a taste of what winter could bring when they decided to have lunch outside. 

“It was cold,” said Mr. Gonzalez. “It was kind of a hard experience not like this — this is nice.”

DENVER OUTDOOR DINING CORONAVIRUSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Scott Cons gathers table settings at the outdoor seating area at Fire On The Mountain in Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, Sept. 30, 2020.

They’re not sure they would do it again.

Rather than spending money on equipment that might not be that useful, West plans to focus on takeout when it gets too cold to comfortably sit outside. After more than six months of reduced capacity due to the pandemic — and no timeline on when things will return to normal - many restaurants will struggle to find the extra cash for winter preparations, said Riggs of the restaurant association. 

“They’re going to need to come up with some real money to be able to invest in what this outdoor program looks like,” Riggs said. “That could be the hardship or the barrier that may be a little bit difficult for some of those restaurants.” 

Still, more than half of restaurants surveyed said they would take advantage of outdoor dining in winter if it became available. Riggs said the state had been supportive of continuing outdoor dining, which helped keep beleaguered restaurants afloat this summer. The state has released guidelines for how restaurants can safely remain open, even in cold months, and Polis has urged people to continue dining outside.