Winter is coming: Evanston restaurants prepare for outdoor dining during COVID


Courtesy of Tapas Barcelona

Tapas Barcelona plans to seat customers outside this fall and winter. It purchased a number of heat lamps to keep patrons warm.

Zoe Malin, Senior Staffer

Most Octobers, John Tasiopoulos, owner of Old Neighborhood Grill, serves customers burgers as they watch Northwestern football inside his restaurant.

This year, the restaurant looks very different. Old Neighborhood Grill added two tents to its outdoor beer garden and set up multiple heat lamps and a television in the space. Tasiopoulos expects the tented area to be where he will serve most customers in the cold months to come.

Peckish Pig has a tent over its patio. It also installed propane heat lamps. (Courtesy of Peckish Pig)

Restaurants across Evanston are tasked with the challenge of extending the outdoor dining season because of COVID-19. Tasiopoulos said that although many customers don’t feel comfortable eating indoors, even with socially distanced tables and masked servers, they still want to brave Evanston’s chilly temperatures and wind to enjoy a meal outdoors.

Tasiopoulos said finding ways to keep customers coming to local restaurants is the only way many small businesses will survive through the fall and winter.

“The fate of restaurants is in customers’ hands,” he said. “If they support us, we’ll make it through this madness. If they don’t, some of us will close. It’s a grim picture, but it’s inevitable.”

Restaurant owners have been preparing to continue outdoor dining through the winter for months. In May, City Council approved a resolution waiving sidewalk cafe permit fees for 2020, which helped businesses financially, many of whom were already struggling. The resolution also allowed temporary outdoor seating permits to be issued in accordance with COVID-19 health guidelines, according to the City’s website.

Janek Evans, general manager of Peckish Pig, knew he could set up heat lamps on his patio weeks ago. Yet, when he tried to purchase them, they were already sold out. Evans said heaters and tents are hard to come by because restaurants across the country are preparing for the cold months ahead.

Tasiopoulos experienced a similar problem. He ordered propane heat lamps in August, which usually ship in about a week. This year, the heaters took between six and seven weeks to arrive.

The increased demand for heat lamps and other heating elements has created another problem: a propane shortage. Evans said he often goes to multiple gas stations and home improvement stores, but cannot find propane anywhere to fuel the heaters and fire pits in Peckish Pig’s cove

Stacked & Folded Social House has a number of “endless summer tables” outside. The tables have a fire pit in the center and a lower burner to heat people’s legs. (Courtesy of Stacked & Folded Social House)

red patio. Even when Evans does procure propane, it’s expensive.

“As a restaurant right now, you want to cut costs as much as possible,” Evans said. “But you have to spend an additional $400 or $500 dollars every seven to 14 days to power the heaters.”

Purchasing propane has also been a challenge for Maria Lopez, co-owner of Tapas Barcelona, but she said it has been worth every penny. Customers often see the heat lamps outside the restaurant and are drawn in because of them, she said.

“It’s always been about making customers feel comfortable in the outdoor atmosphere,” Lopez said. “Now, during these cold days, customers have to be warm in order to feel comfortable.”

To overcome these obstacles, some restaurants are finding innovative solutions to extend the outdoor dining season. Joshua Lee Keating, executive chef and owner of Stacked & Folded Social House, did extensive research when trying to decide how to heat his outdoor dining area on Noyes Street.

Keating stumbled upon “endless summer tables,” which have a fire pit in the center and a lower burner to heat people’s legs. Keating said these tables promote gathering, but not in the traditional sense.

“We can’t have a big group of people sharing a meal right now,” Keating said. “But these tables invite the feeling of togetherness we all miss.”

Despite restaurants’ best efforts to warm customers up outdoors, Evans is worried about the next few months. Small, independently owned restaurants are especially vulnerable to losing business during the pandemic.

Evans said the addition of cold weather could jeopardize some from being able to stay open for much longer.

“If people want their local spots to be open for the coming year, it’s up to them to support us,” Evans said. “We need to combat this cold weather and this pandemic together. We need our community to step up for us.”

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