Many Washtenaw County restaurants added outdoor winter dining options to cope with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and a number of those restaurants will continue to offer those options even though indoor dining reopened on Feb. 1.
Restaurants invested in personal "igloos," fire pits, heaters, and other new innovations to entice customers to brave the cold for some outdoor dining. While in some cases those changes haven't significantly boosted restaurants' revenue, they've allowed many establishments to maintain a connection with their customers. And restaurateurs say the changes are likely to stay, especially while many of them feel disinclined to reopen indoor dining.
Tommy York, owner of York (formerly Morgan & York) at 1928 Packard St. in Ann Arbor, says he hasn't allowed any indoor dining since March 2020, even during times when state regulations allowed that option. He says a friend who is a University of Michigan epidemiologist told him that if he could stay in business without indoor dining and while limiting interactions with customers to less than 15 minutes, then York should do so. York owner Tommy York.
"COVID scares the hell out of me, for our customers and staff and the community in general, so we take it really seriously," York says. "I don't want to be the place where customers say, 'I wish that guy had paid more attention, and now I'm sick.'"
York had already offered outdoor dining in its courtyard before COVID-19, but staff upgraded picnic tables, furniture, and fire pits; added more electrical outlets and heaters; and leveled out the surface of the establishment's courtyard with help from a state grant.
"Those things were already in the plan, but COVID made us realize we had to do it immediately, not later," York says. "It's not as refined as I'd like it to be, but it's pretty comfortable when the fires are lit and the heaters are going. It's really interesting to watch customers relax and sit down and get that little bit of normalcy again."
York didn't reopen indoor dining when it was allowed starting Feb. 1, and he says he won't allow dining inside until his epidemiologist friend gives him the "all clear." And the fire pits will remain.
"I think if we can still break even, we'll keep encouraging people to eat outside and hang on until we get vaccinated," York says. "We do need money and sales, but time and people are two resources that are not renewable."
Aaron Orr, general manager of Bobcat Bonnie's at 200 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, says the restaurant was making most of its money from to-go orders while indoor dining wasn't allowed. Installing four outdoor "igloos," with seating capacity of up to six each, was mostly for customers' convenience. Bobcat Bonnie's general manager Aaron Orr.
"The igloos are just about being able to satisfy our guests," he says. "Everyone wants to get out and do something after being home doing virtual learning with the kids. It lets them feel normal for a second."
Diners make a reservation online and pay $35 for a 90-minute time block, but that reservation fee is then applied to the final bill. There's no minimum order, in keeping with the restaurant's mission of providing a moderately-priced dining experience. The igloos are heated, but if patrons are still a bit chilly, they can bring blankets or buy one from the restaurant. Orr says the restaurant expects to continue using the igloos for diners who are still feeling cautious about indoor dining, even though it's now allowed.
Bløm Meadworks, 100 S. 4th Ave. in Ann Arbor, had a small outdoor patio before COVID-19 hit, but owner Lauren Bloom says the business is "definitely using it much more so than we ever had before." Bløm Meadworks owners Lauren Bloom and Matt Ritchey.
Bløm also added two heated huts, one that's reservable for 90-minute blocks and one for walk-up business. She's hoping to add a second reservable hut soon.
"People are gravitating to them," Bloom says. "If they're operating cautiously, maybe it's good for them to know they have a plan before they leave the house."
She says she isn't planning to open the indoor space right away, and "probably not for the foreseeable future."
"It doesn't feel like enough has changed in the COVID landscape that it's safe to bring people inside from different households," she says. "Since the beginning of COVID, we've operated on the cautious side. I'd have to feel really confident before I open the indoor space to customers and staff."
She says she expects to keep the heated huts, probably "for a long time."
"There's still plenty of unpredictable weather, and it's nice to have a covered outdoor option to offer people, COVID or not," she says. "... The good news is, if at any point we don't need them, we can use them as greenhouses in the garden."
Black Pearl, 302 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor, has long had a large patio that was generally just used for three seasons, largely due to the city's restrictions on when those can open and when they must close, according to Executive Chef James Wilhelm. He says the city was "more flexible in letting people do different options" in 2020, however. Black Pearl's Executive Chef James Wilhelm.
Black Pearl was one of the first restaurants to offer heated outdoor winter dining in downtown Ann Arbor during the pandemic, and those greenhouses created a clear business advantage early on. Even after other downtown restaurants started adding outdoor winter dining options, though, Black Pearl's greenhouses remained popular.
"It's been a really good revenue stream for us," Wilhelm says. "We didn't know what to expect, but it's been really good, and we've seen [revenue] numbers very comparable to last year's numbers, just operating our greenhouses. We'll continue to use these year after year if the city will allow it."
Patrons can use an online reservation system to book a 90-minute time slot, and Wilhelm says they're "pretty much booked solid every day by the time service starts."
Even now that indoor dining is allowed, Wilhelm says many patrons are still requesting the outdoor dining experience, and that's been good for Black Pearl's bottom line.
"It allows us to have 78 seats total: 32 in the green houses and 46 inside," he says. "Having those 32 seats outside allows us to operate at an affordable level."
Wilhelm says he's grateful for the support his business is getting from local residents. He has friends who run restaurants all over the state of Michigan, and he says all of them are seeing customers coming out to support them.
"Ann Arbor is a huge foodie town, and if people weren't willing to help us in these times, we wouldn't have the restaurants that we have," he says. "And what is Ann Arbor without its restaurants?"
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.