Bar and restaurant owners in McLean County hope allowing outdoor seating will whet the appetites of customers hungry to return to their favorite eateries and watering holes.
They are scrambling to adjust yet again to a new way of doing business.
When Gov. JB Pritzker shut down all bars and restaurants in March, Shannon Patterson, owner of Shannon's Five-Star Restaurant in Bloomington, loaded up on to-go boxes as she shifted to curbside pickup. All the while she kept her sights on late June when she hoped to reopen the restaurant she's owned for 23 years.
“It didn’t even occur to me he was going to allow outdoor dining,” Patterson said. “That was kind of a nice bone they threw us as far as giving us something to do while we were waiting to be able to open up the dining rooms.”
Currently, the dining room is all Shannon's has, but the governor's plan to allow for outdoor dining sooner as the state moves closer to reopening is sparking some ingenuity for those who want to maximize their space.
Patterson said once Pritzker made the announcement, she spent the night creating a plan for outdoor seating.
“I’m really excited because I always wanted to have outdoor seating anyway, but I never had an opportunity to implement it or to get my ideas going with what I wanted to do,” said Patterson, adding she has enough room outside to seat up to 60 people even with social distancing.
Shannon's isn't the only restaurant seizing this moment to create new dining space.
“That has always been one of our dreams, so maybe this will make that happen," said Amy Tague, manager at Green Gables Restaurant at Lake Bloomington. She and her husband Kyle Tague are in the process of buying the restaurant and becoming third-generation owners.
Green Gables doesn't have a beer garden, but it has a big backyard and parking lot where they hope to add up to 10 picnic tables. That's as much seating as they have inside the restaurant.
Amy Tague said they don't want to wait until then to hire back their staff of 25 employees. They open for curbside service on Friday.
“Now we are excited to be able to open back up and get our business going and get everybody their greasy Gables burger and cheeseballs they have been craving,” she said.
Setting up tables outside isn't so easy when you are in a restricted space. Fort Jesse Cafe in Normal shares a building with four other businesses. Tim Strader, who handles the cafe's money, has been talking to Town of Normal officials about how they could accommodate outdoor diners when they can't allow customers inside.
“Our parking lot is less full as a result of that, maybe we can use some of that space around the building, put up some tables outside,” Strader said.
Restaurants that already have outdoor patios may be especially poised for a return to normal. Medici in Uptown Normal plans to open its rooftop patio once the state gives the go-ahead.
Manager Joe Slane said seating will be more limited because of social distancing. Instead of the usual 80-seat capacity, they hope to fit up to 60 diners.
“It’s still not going to get us back to where we need to be or where we are, but it will at least be a stepping stone to get there,” said Slane, adding the restaurant also is talking to the town about allowing sidewalk dining.
Epiphany Farms Restaurant in downtown Bloomington is hoping to expand its sidewalk dining space. It has room for 10 tables now and wants to add more, though co-owner Ken Myszka acknowledged keeping the tables socially distant could reduce that number.
“We are going to have to keep that in consideration and have the tables six feet apart, but Epiphany Farms has always had pretty good spacing between its tables and that patio is not that crammed,” Myszka said. “It shouldn’t be that difficult for us to space them out to meet that requirement.”
Myszka said adding those outdoor tables may not seem like much, but it could be enough for the company, Epiphany Farms Hospitality Group, to reopen its Old Bank Restaurant in LeRoy. It closed on Sunday.
He said the big difference is when people dine at your restaurant, they also drink.
“That plus side is that all of our beverage sales we’ve lost. That’s about 35% of our total sales and it also makes up a vast majority of any profit you can make off of restaurants and dining for the most part.”
Each of the restaurants said they will continue to keep safety top of mind for their customers and staff, but they are waiting for specific guidance from the McLean County Health Department and the restaurant industry.
Joe Slane at Medici has a unique challenge. His customers have to go inside the restaurant to get to the upstairs patio. He will have one set of stairs incoming and one outgoing.
“We would of course ask people to wear masks when they are in the common areas. Of course, you can’t do that while you are sitting down and eating we understand,” Slane said.
Slane said the restaurant plans to make masks available to customers, but he's not sure yet whether they will require a face covering for customers to walk to their seats.
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