Bar and restaurant owners in McLean County have had to get creative to keep customers during the pandemic. But one key feature that's likely been the biggest boost, expanded outdoor dining, is fading fast as fall approaches, and they are now bracing for a long, cold winter with less room for customers.
When Matt Spears and his business partner were designing what would become Nightshop in downtown Bloomington in 2018, they considered enclosing their large outdoor patio.
“It was thought about. We could really increase our square footage all year round if we enclosed this,” Spears said. “Basically, the expense of that wasn’t necessarily worth it originally.”
Now in this time of COVID, Spears said they'd sure like to have those extra tables for customers now that the weather has turned colder.
“Obviously if we could have predicted that this was how things were going to be, we would have absolutely done that,” Spears acknowledged.
It's a dilemma all bars and restaurants face. Expanded outdoor dining won't be feasible much longer. And with limited capacity indoors for social distancing, it will be harder for the establishments to pay their bills.
Many restaurant owners had the same worries in the spring when they had to close indoor dining. They said community goodwill helped them get by during the uncertain times.
Jack Anderson owns The Town Well in Stanford, about 15 miles southwest of Bloomington. Anderson said his signature event, Thursday steak night, has survived--even thrived--under COVID.
“The first steak night we had, we sold out in 23 minutes. We sold 85 steak dinners. And now we are up to about 120 steaks every steak night,” Anderson said.
He said it has helped greatly that he could set up picnic tables to seat 40 people on the lawn outside. That's more than he can fit inside under COVID seating restrictions. He's not sure what he's going to do when it's too cold to be outside. Anderson said it's hard to turn tables quickly when people come for a relaxing dinner.
“I hate to have to turn people away with our limited seating, but I don’t know how we are going to handle this because you can’t ask your customers to leave when they are done eating their food because they are still enjoying a cocktail or something,” Anderson said.
Bloomington and Normal city officials were quick to encourage businesses to use sidewalks, alleys even city streets to expand seating capacity during the pandemic. Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said the city listened to what bars and restaurants needed to survive in the spring and summer, and the city is open to suggestions again.
“We want businesses to tell us what they need,” Renner said. “Do you have any ideas for how we move forward? There are going to be different kinds of challenges now that the weather is going to be cold. All options should be on the table at this point as long as we are protecting public safety.”
And public safety creates more hurdles. For example, portable heaters are off limits in Normal. Cathy Oloffson, director of communications and community relations for the Town of Normal, said the town considers them a fire risk.
“(There is) the chance that a portable heater could blow over in the wind or be tipped over by a patron or what not,” Oloffson said.
Bloomington’s city code indicates portable heaters must be approved by the city's fire inspector.
Said Saliba owns The Rock Restaurant, a fast casual eatery in Uptown Normal. He said outdoor heaters wouldn't help him anyway. There's no room. With limited seating outside, Saliba said The Rock will have to ramp up curbside and delivery service, just like it did in the spring.
“We did survive,” Saliba said. “We are going to push for better promotion, more promotion, and then we are going to hope we can survive until the end of the year.”
Saliba said it's been tough to keep everyone on staff during the pandemic, but he's doing all he can to keep everyone on the payroll.
“My staff has some bills to pay,” Saliba said. “My staff has been with me for a long time and I’m trying as much as I can to keep those guys because I care for them. I want them to pay their bills.”
Nightshop got help with its payroll, receiving a federal PPP money in the spring while the restaurant was mostly closed. Nightshop also is an entertainment venue, featuring live music, karaoke nights, even a dart league--events that were off limits all summer. Managing partner Matt Spears said they had hoped to get in a few outdoor events this fall, including a trivia night outside, but it looks like that window has closed for the year.
“It kind of stinks for us that we were finally comfortable trying some things, not trying to go too far with anything, just trying to [keep] events outside which is much safer, and we could have much more people out there,” Spears said. “Clearly, the weather changed at the wrong time.”
Spears tries to see the bright side. The restaurant reopened its dining room this week for the first time since March. He said Nightshop's primary mission during the pandemic has been to keep people safe.
Normal's expanded outdoor dining ordinance expires Nov. 1. Cathy Oloffson said no one has asked for an extension. Outdoor dining in Bloomington runs until the end of November.
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