Struggling restaurants are about to lose one of their last lifelines: outdoor dining

Credit: Dayton.com

Credit: Dayton.com

Dayton-area restaurants struggling to survive a pandemic that has been especially cruel to their industry are about to lose one of the few remaining lifelines sustaining their businesses: Patio and outdoor seating.

But some are not going down without a fight — even when their opponent is Mother Nature, who rarely loses.

Some restaurant owners are looking for ways to extend the outdoor-dining season with heaters and tents and any other means they can find to keep customers coming to their restaurant patios. Others would love to be able to take similar steps — but say they just don’t have the money.

The stakes are high. The restaurant, bar and food industry employs nearly one in 10 Ohioans, but the outlook for survival of many restaurants and bars is turning grim. Although based on a tiny fraction of responses from its member restaurants, the Ohio Restaurant Association (ORA) says its online surveys of its member restaurants suggest that half or more of Ohio’s restaurant owners and operators don’t expect their businesses to survive into 2021 if conditions stay the same, according to ORA President and CEO John Barker.

Many diners are still at least somewhat reluctant to eat out. A survey of 2,200 adult Americans conducted from Oct. 1-4 by MorningConsult.com suggested that 32 percent of Americans are “very uncomfortable” with the idea of going out to a restaurant or café. And another 23 percent are “somewhat uncomfortable” to go out to eat. Of those respondents over 65 years old, 41 percent said they were “very uncomfortable” with the notion.

That’s not good news for Miami Valley restaurants, which were rocked in the spring by the mandatory statewide shutdown of dine-in services that lasted nearly two months, as Gov. Mike DeWine and state health officials sought to minimize the spread of COVID-19. When dine-in service was restored in May, restaurants were forced to severely reduce seating capacity to ensure social distancing to reduce exposure to the coronavirus, as ordered by the state. Then restaurants and bars took another hit in late July when DeWine ordered a 10 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales to help reduce virus spread.

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But patio and outdoor seating emerged as a much-needed boost to restaurant bottom lines. Dining al fresco has surged in popularity, and some restaurants worked quickly to add makeshift patios to accommodate diners reluctant to come inside. Some municipalities offered regulatory relief to allow for the expansion of outdoor seating into sidewalks, parking lots and closed streets, although in many cases, that regulatory relief is scheduled to expire this fall.

But autumn is here, and winter is approaching. That means a halt to the vast majority of patio seating.

Coco's Bistro on Warren St. installed eight heaters on their patio to extend the outdoor dinning scene as late as possible into the fall. Above, Dr. Abubakr, from New York City, enjoys lunch a Coco's and is thinking about relocating to Dayton.
Coco's Bistro on Warren St. installed eight heaters on their patio to extend the outdoor dinning scene as late as possible into the fall. Above, Dr. Abubakr, from New York City, enjoys lunch a Coco's and is thinking about relocating to Dayton.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Karen Wick-Gagnet, co-owner of Coco’s Bistro on Warren Street in Dayton, said her overall business is down by as much as 40 percent some weeks, but patio dining has kept her restaurant’s losses from being even worse.

“We’ve had a great patio season, and I want to extend our outdoor dining as long as possible,” Wick-Gagnet said.

So last week, the restaurateur rented eight large portable propane patio heaters to provide warmth to guests on Coco’s Bistro’s covered patio. Customers welcomed the move, Wick-Gagnet said.

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“We can move them, we can turn them up or down,” Wick-Gagnet said. “It’s another aspect to manage, but we are doing what we can to extend service outside.”

Cassaundra Spaziani, general manager of Giovanni’s Pizzeria é Ristorante Italiano in Fairborn and the daughter of Giovanni’s owner Tony Spaziani, said her restaurant has added heaters, "but unfortunately, they only help so much.

“We have looked at trying to partially enclose the area, but it is a lot of money, and it would only extend the seating a few weeks,” Spaziani said. “We have had our small outdoor area for a few years, and typically, we load everything up and shut it down the third week of October. We have some room indoors that would allow us to still follow guidelines if we added tables, so we are going to go that route instead.”

Giovanni’s has added curbside carryout, expanded delivery services and launched special carryout-only dinners on the days when the restaurant would normally be closed to help boost business.

“Realistically, though, it is a scary time,” Spaziani said. “While right now we are doing fine, not knowing what winter will bring, with all of its uncertainties, is scary.”

A 2008 photo of Carmel's, located at 1025 Shroyer Road in Dayton.
A 2008 photo of Carmel's, located at 1025 Shroyer Road in Dayton.

Bob Byers, owner of Carmel’s restaurant on Shroyer Road in Dayton, thinks he knows what’s coming — and he’s bracing for a significant hit.

Carmel’s spacious patio was expanded in 2008. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it held as many as 125 guests — about 50 more than what the restaurant seated inside prior to COVID-19. Now, the patio seats close to 100 — tables were previously spaced fairly far apart due to limited kitchen capacity — and the restaurant seats about 50 inside, Byers said.

A strong patio business this summer meant overall sales dropped only about 20 percent compared to last summer, Byers said. “But with the limited indoor seating coupled with the guests' hesitation to eat indoors, I expect our loss of revenue will be 35 to 50 percent this winter compared to last winter,” the restaurant’s owner said.

“To extend our outdoor seating later into the fall season, we are exploring closing in part of the patio and providing heaters,” Byers said.

But that decision is “extremely precarious,” Byers said, because of the costs involved, which include not only enclosure costs, but also the cost of heating and staffing the space. Byers wonders how many days an enclosed outdoor space will actually be used. And like other restaurant owners, Byers said, he’s not exactly flush with cash to undertake such a project.

TJ Chumps, 7050 Executive Blvd. in Huber Heights, has a large outdoor patio. LISA POWELL / STAFF
TJ Chumps, 7050 Executive Blvd. in Huber Heights, has a large outdoor patio. LISA POWELL / STAFF

Mike Leigh — managing partner of TJ Chumps, which operates sports bar-restaurants in Miamisburg, Fairborn, Huber Heights and Englewood — said his restaurants are known for their patios.

With some customers’ wariness to eat indoors, “those patio tables have become an incredible asset for our four stores,” Leigh said.

Patio business accounted for more than 60 percent of TJ Chumps' sales over the summer, Leigh said.

“While I don’t expect our sales to dip that much, closing the patios for the season will have a considerable impact,” Leigh said. “We have always had both installed and portable heaters we use to extend the use of our patios. This year those heaters will be even more valuable. We also have walls we can put up and take down to help hold in the heat and block wind.”

For her part, Coco’s Bistro owner Wick-Gagnet cautioned that the heaters are no cure-all for an Ohio fall or winter, and gave this advice to late-season patio diners:

“Bring blankets, and wear your socks and shoes.”

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