When restaurants reopened for outdoor dining on June 8, Buttermilk & Bourbon was one of the first back in business. By lunchtime, the patio at the Back Bay spot was already booked solid.
“At this point, I would never open a restaurant without a patio,” says chef Jason Santos, who also operates the nearby Citrus & Salt and Abby Lane in the Theatre District. “It’s a game changer.” Buttermilk & Bourbon, which has 75 outdoor seats, has been busier than ever these past few months, Santos says. “The curb appeal and energy draw people in.”
But fall is arriving, and the outdoor dining season is coming to an end. Patios have been tenuous lifelines for some restaurants since the outbreak of coronavirus; for others, not at all. Many are struggling, and more than 30 local food businesses have closed. As winter approaches, how are restaurateurs preparing for what is certain to be a challenging period for the industry?
“Like everybody, we are looking to extend the season as much as possible, because we know people want to sit outside,” says chef Sarah Wade of Stillwater, which just marked its first year in business. “We are trying to find this balance of ‘yes, we’re in the middle of COVID, but we’re also trying to have some sort of normal restaurant life.’” That means you’ll still find beer and sausages for Oktoberfest, even if you’re enjoying them on the patio.
Wade is looking into outdoor heaters for that space, along with ways to obtain them without spending too much; one possibility might be striking a deal with a purveyor, where the company would purchase the heaters in exchange for a commitment to buy a certain amount of its product.
Branded blankets are another idea, good for keeping customers warm, and for getting the word out about the restaurant. “Maybe you can sell them at cost to guests. It would be really cute, and another touch point for marketing: ‘I love your blanket. Where did you get it?,’” Wade says. (It fits in, too, with the restaurant’s tagline: “Serving warm & fuzzies since 2019.”)
In the Seaport, the Envoy Hotel has suspended many of its usual offerings: indoor dining, room service, coffee in the lobby. But its Lookout Rooftop is ideally situated to weather this time. For now, tables are placed at an appropriate distance, and in the hour between lunch and dinner, operations shut down so staff can deep-clean and sanitize the space.
As temperatures drop, Lookout has access to an unusual amenity: the groovy-looking rooftop igloos it has set up the last few winters. Seating will work a little differently this year, says chef Tatiana Rosana, limited to six people per structure, all of whom must be from the same party. “The igloos are heavy-duty plastic. There are chairs and tables in each one, and a heater, so it’s nice and cozy. They close via Velcro so none of the wind gets in,” she says. Half of the cocktail list will be devoted to hot drinks, and the menu will include dishes like clam chowder and poutine — “things that are warming and good for the soul.” The plan is to close for a few weeks to get set up, then open the igloos in early November.
Other operators are doing what they can to extend outdoor dining while facing the realities of New England in the winter.
“We have all our heaters on order,” says Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz. “We’re prepared with propane heaters in any of our outdoor spaces. I think we fantasize about igloos and greenhouses, but the reality of that is whether [it makes sense] from our cost scenario, and you can’t get many people under one of those to begin with.”
Instead, he’s turning his attention to indoor operations. Legal has always done takeout, but it’s never been a significant part of the business. That is starting to change, with Legal’s food now available via DoorDash. Berkowitz is focused on safety and cleaning measures, including the use of a disinfecting misting agent before opening each day.
And he’s concerned with seating: what is allowed and what isn’t. “There has been a prohibition against bar seating,” he says, acknowledging the precaution has helped keep coronavirus numbers low in Massachusetts. But at many restaurants, his included, a good portion of the seating is at the bar. “When you look at bar seating in full-service restaurants, it’s not people having drinks with a package of pretzels. Seventy to 80 percent of their tab is food-related. . . . If you took out all the open bottles behind the bar, and the glassware and the bartender, but allowed people to sit at the bar, we would be able to recoup a number of seats lost and make up for some of the seats we will lose when the weather changes.”
At Rincon Limeño, a Peruvian restaurant in East Boston, the conversation about how to proceed is just beginning. “We have some tables outside. That’s how we’re getting through all this,” says owner Sandra Giraldo. Inside, they’re down to four tables from their usual 12. Right now, they have some patio heaters and the temperature still feels comfortable, but Giraldo knows that isn’t going to last. “I think the only thing that we can do is have Plexiglas dividers for each table, and we are not planning on having the full capacity that we used to have before, but at least a couple more tables than we have right now,” she says.
Takeout is also helping to sustain the restaurant, but it’s not enough to cover rent and additional new costs like sanitizers and gloves. “It’s expensive. Gloves are like $120 a case, and all the employees are wearing them. It’s very difficult. We will go one day at a time.”
Steve “Nookie” Postal is behind Commonwealth in Cambridge, as well as Revival Cafe + Kitchen, which has several locations. Revival is designed for takeout, but Commonwealth is a different story. Located in Kendall Square, it relies on business from the tech industry and MIT, as well as weddings and events. “We weren’t able to pivot because all of our business is gone,” he says. “There are no tech workers, no corporate parties, no MIT, no weddings, no holiday parties, no after-work crowd, no lunch rush. It’s a wasteland.”
Commonwealth has been operating under a new patio tent and hosting weekly Super Soaker Smoker Sunday barbecues. They’ll keep doing so through Sept. 20. Then the restaurant will go into hibernation, a decision Nookie wrote about for the website Eater.
“We’ll tidy it up, shrink-wrap it, turn off the walk-ins, unplug all the coolers, turn the lights off, keep the water dripping, turn the gas off, lower our insurance, and just wait until this passes,” he says. He estimates the restaurant will continue to lose about $20,000 a month in this state — “more of a controlled bleed than the hemorrhaging” that would otherwise happen. “We are going to survive this,” he says. “Restaurants aren’t going to disappear.”
Stillwater’s Wade says much the same. “We’ll fight, be creative, and put out the best product we can. We’ll show up and grind,” she says. “People need to continue to spend dollars in our economy. It’s hard right now because dollars are tight, but everybody is out here fighting the good fight. If you love your local restaurant, go buy something from them.”
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.