Last updated on December 15th, 2020 at 12:22 pm
Winter is here, and full-service restaurants are bracing for what could be the toughest stretch of the COVID-19 crisis yet as positive case counts remain high and diners are leery of eating at a restaurant indoors.
For several Milwaukee-area restaurant operators, the solution lies in plastic-enclosed domes, makeshift greenhouses or insulated yurts — heated outdoor structures where small groups (ideally of the same household) can share a meal in their own space away from other diners.
During the summer and fall, outdoor dining helped restaurants make up for revenue lost to indoor capacity limits, as mandated by local and state government or naturally as a result of recommended social distancing between tables.
But as the virus has continued to spread, fewer seats in the dining room is not the main concern, at least for Belfre Kitchen in Delafield.
“People aren’t really coming out to dine inside, at least not our clientele, so our sales have been down,” said general manager Gerard Strong.
Belfre Kitchen has had much better success drawing customers to dine inside its four plastic dome structures, which made their debut last winter. The domes, which seat no more than six people for brunch, lunch and dinner service, are booked solid through almost year’s end, after the restaurant sold more reservations in the first month than it sold all last year, said Strong.
“We’ve had a tremendous response with the domes, and in all honestly it is kind of what has been keeping us afloat at this point,” he said.
Reservations are priced at $50 for both weekend brunch and weekday dinner, while weekend dinner is $75. Lunch reservations are free. Diners can add drink and appetizer packages to their pre-paid reservation, and entrees are ordered upon arrival.
Strong described a huge gap in diners’ comfortability level when it comes to sitting in the domes verses inside the restaurant, even though the same standard of safety and sanitization is applied to both dining experiences, he said.
Between each hour-and-45-minute-reservation, all surfaces inside the dome are sprayed with disinfectant and the space is aired out for at least 10 minutes through a door and two windows. The ventilation piece is key for such a tight, enclosed space, but just how safe the dome experience is rests heavily on diners staying in their bubble, or household.
“I’m always telling (customers), ‘If it’s people you’re with and you’ve been seeing them the whole time, it should be fine,'” he said. “If you’re meeting up with four or five people you haven’t seen in two months, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, but it’s like completely against what everyone is saying we should be doing right now.”
A recent report by the Wall Street Journal cited a number of experts who said enclosed outdoor structures protect groups of diners from one another, but the setting would increase diners’ exposure to COVID-19 if someone in their group had the virus.
Milwaukee-based Lowlands Group, which is known for introducing winter dome dining to the area in 2018 with its ‘Lux Domes’ at Cafe Benelux, says it has spent months adapting the wintertime outdoor dining experience to pandemic times. That means expanding the popular concept to each of its seven area restaurant locations, just in time to harness holiday-driven demand.
Each restaurant has been outfitted with its own outdoor structures— either domes, greenhouses or tents– with an on-brand theme: Frank & Larry’s Northwoods Shanties at Buckatabon Tavern & Supper Club, Dome Village on the Terrace & Holiday Row on the Parklet at Café Hollander on Downer Ave., and the Winter Garden of Eten in the Courtyard Centraal Grand Café & Tappery in Bay View.
Depending on the location, a 90-minute reservation ranges in price from $100 to $200.
“We view this experience as an illustration of the hard work and effort our teams have put into responding to this pandemic,” said Eric Wagner, chief executive officer at Lowlands Group. “In addition to the individual, outdoor structures and service style, our enhanced safety measures and protocols allow guests to safely interact with their close-knit circle without having to venture indoors at any point.”
Staggered reservation times ensure 30 minutes of ventilation and sanitizing, which includes atomizer fog bombs to target airborne pathogens and bacteria between each use. Inside the tents, industrial heated “blowers” exchange all of the inside air with outdoor air every five to 15 minutes.
For some establishments, 2020 is their first foray into the world of wintertime outdoor dining. Lakefront Brewery owner Russ Klisch spent five weeks and “all his free time” building five custom huts along the Milwaukee River, outside its brewing facility and beer hall on North Commerce Street.
Groups of six to eight can reserve these ‘Hop Houses‘ for 90 minutes at a price range of $130 to $225. Klisch said the brewery has seen a steady response: by early December, at least one of the huts had been rented every day through the end of the month. He’s hoping the additional revenue stream will financially tide the businesses over until warmer weather arrives.
“Were looking to boost sales or at least keep the people employed here,” said Klisch. “Even with the huts, we’re never going to get back to the numbers we had before the pandemic, but I guess we’re just hoping for this to bridge the patio season so to speak, from one season to the next.”
Kits to build the structures were $1,800 a piece, but the investment will go a long way. The idea is to offer a fun and socially distanced outdoor dining option this winter, and then repurpose them as greenhouses in the summer to grow vegetables and herbs.
And because they are sturdier, the structures can be reused for years to come, and customers may feel more comfortable than they would inside a flimsier space, said Klisch. Plus, Lakefront was able to accessorize the huts with wood floors, rugs and holiday-themed decor, not to mention 1,500-watt electric heaters.
Klisch hopes Hop House patrons belong to the same household– Lakefront isn’t aiming for gatherings, he said. For an added layer of protection, groups are welcome to open the huts’ four ceiling panels for ventilation while in use. Lakefront follows the same safety measures outdoors as it does inside the beer hall, including increased cleaning and mask wearing. And so far, it’s worked as no staff members have contracted COVID-19, said Klisch
“I’ve been to Europe in winter and everybody stays out there and not too many people in Milwaukee do, and I guess if there’s one small silver lining in all this, I just hope it convinces Milwaukee to get some infrastructure that people can stay outside (in winter) even without a pandemic,” he said.
Longtime German restaurant Kegel’s Inn in West Allis used a business development loan from the government to winterize its outdoor beer garden with fire pits, patio heaters, and three heavy-duty yurts, measuring 14 feet wide and 11 feet tall.
Soured from an Indianapolis-based company, the all-season structures are ventilated, well lit, heated by oil radiator and decorated for the holidays. Renting one for six to 12 people is pricier than other places– $250 minimum on weekends, plus a 20% service charge– but the diner experience makes sense for an institution like Kegel’s.
“We’re that nostalgic old Milwaukee kind of feel, and sticking somebody in a little bubble outside doesn’t coincide with the traditional feel of the restaurant,” said fourth-generation owner Stephanie Kegel.
She and her husband, co-owner Julian Kegel, were first introduced to the concept of the yurt years ago while living in Alaska.
Earlier this year, as the couple started to worry about losing outdoor business to cooler temperatures, they decided to purchase the yurts for the restaurant thanks to the loan knowing they’d be sturdy enough to withstand the elements this winter and allow diners to feel safe while dining out.
The response from diners has been promising so far, she said, especially on Fridays and Saturdays around the holidays.
“We can’t lose our people, and so we have to just do what people are demanding,” said Kegel. “If people are only going to come out to where they’re outdoors and they have a place away from all the other people, but they still receive the same service and food that they would if they were in the restaurant, that’s exactly what we need to do to keep our customer base.”