Trying times may be ahead for Wisconsin restaurants that have relied heavily on outdoor dining to make up for limited indoor capacity and changes in diner behavior due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
As winter approaches and temperatures drop, at least one local restaurant has a plan that aims not only to help diners feel comfortable dining out in the era of COVID-19, but would also continue to drive business once masks and social distancing are no longer top priority.
In late October, Nepalese restaurant The Cheel will begin construction of a new four-season pavilion along the south side of its historic Thiensville building, located at 105 S. Main Street. The pavilion will include a climate-controlled socially distant dining area, topped with a seasonal rooftop patio to host events and provide overflow seating for its ground-level beer garden, The Baaree.
In the winter, the pavilion's dining space will be fully enclosed, radiant heated and vents will circulate new air every 30 minutes. In the summer, glass garage-style doors around the entire structure will lift up for an open-air environment.
With The Cheel's indoor dining capped at 50% for the foreseeable future, the expansion will allow the business to maintain its pre-pandemic seating capacity, which was about 24 tables, said Barkha Limbu Daily, who owns the business with her husband Jesse Daily.
The restaurant currently has a total of 23 tables-- 12 inside and 11 outside-- thanks to a large open-air tent that has taken over a portion of the parking lot since dine-in service resumed in late May. As people have gotten more comfortable dining out over the past few months, The Cheel's temporary outdoor dining space helped revenue return to almost pre-pandemic levels.
That was enough justification for the couple to take out a loan for the pavilion project, even after initially investing $30,000 just to reopen the restaurant with new health and safety protocols as well as a new reservation system.
"We needed something, something to get through this, but we had to look at it with a long-term strategy," said Limbu Daily.
Commercial-grade patio heaters in the tent have been used to keep diners warm on chilly summer nights, but that set-up didn't stand a chance against winter temperatures. The Cheel got a taste of that reality earlier this month when temperatures suddenly dropped, and reservations and cash flow for the week decreased by 75%.
"On the patio it was too cold and people were just not ready to come inside," Limbu Daily said. "That cold snap really showed us what winter could have been because we couldn't work at 25% revenue."
Without the revenue from the additional seating space, the restaurant would not be able to cover all of its costs and pay all of its bills, she said.
"If we didn't do this, the alternative was we would shut down permanently," said Limbu Daily.
About 30% of restaurants in Wisconsin are expected to go under at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. National projections are similar, claiming approximately one-third of all restaurants are headed for permanent closure by year's end.
Limbu Daily did not want her restaurant to be part of a statistic, but the business had to get creative and look beyond the current challenges of COVID-19.
The Cheel has hired Lawrence Kreiner, a well-known local events planner, to work on the event side of the business, which is tapped to expand thanks to the new pavilion.
"It was a multi-pronged approach... what can we do to increase cash flow and sustain ourselves?" Limbu Daily said.
Greenleaf-based construction firm The Brookwater Group is heading the project, which is expected to take about three weeks. Site plans were recently approved by Thiensville's Historic Preservation Commission.
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