Business

Restaurants get creative as cold weather threatens outdoor dining during COVID-19

Posted November 6, 2020 6:15 a.m. EST
Updated November 6, 2020 8:09 a.m. EST

— The upcoming colder weather has many restaurateurs concerned who have come to rely heavily on expanded outdoor dining during COVID-19.

Recently, Raleigh’s Downtown Alliance provided special grants to downtown dining establishments to deal with a predicted decline of patrons as temperatures drop.

Other restaurant owners in the city, including places like Cameron Village, face that same challenge but don’t have grant support. Many are now planning their strategy for survival as autumn and winter temperatures arrive.

Cantina 18 chef-owner Jason Smith said, earlier in the pandemic, his Cameron Village business dropped to about 15%. Curbside dining remained busy, but it was barely enough to keep the restaurant operating.

During the initial pandemic shutdown, Smith benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program through the Small Business Administration.

"The PPP loan definitely helped," he said. "It brought back almost all of my full-time employees at that point."

As he prepared to re-open, Smith also received help from the "Count On Me NC" program through the state’s restaurant association along with N.C. State University and the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

"That program allowed us to open safely and confidently," said Smith.

Indoors at Cantina 18, about every other table is blocked off from diners. Typically, half of the lunch crowd enjoys meals outside on patio space. Earlier, the restaurant opened up a front window entry where diners could enjoy the fresh air but still within the indoor area where they could glance at the large TV screen near the bar.

Patrons Melinda Dickinson and Sarah Hancock prefer dining out in front of the restaurant. It’s where Hancock feels more comfortable.

Gentle breezes were welcomed in summer, but soon those breezes will bring a chill. Smith offered his own advice for autumn dining, saying, "When you go out to eat, I would bundle up a little bit more than normal."

Smith said the restaurant’s curbside pickup has been a popular option for cautious customers and a big saving grace for his and other restaurants.

Hancock and Dickinson say they may be a little less likely to choose outdoor dining when there’s a chill in the air, but they have noticed restaurants getting more creative. "I think a lot of the restaurants in Raleigh do a nice job of providing heaters and making outdoor seating as comfortable as possible when it gets colder," said Hancock.

Chef Smith plans on doing just that. "Moving air and warmth and being able to be in wide open spaces is real important right now for me as an owner," he said. "It will be great during COVID-19 and even after."

On Monday and Tuesday nights, Smith partners with other restaurants for a concept he calls a "Ghost Kitchen." Cantina 18 and other Raleigh restaurants like Wye Hill Kitchen and Brewing, Lawrence BBQ and Parkside Restaurant share signature dishes for curbside pick-up and dine-in customers.

"The great thing about the Raleigh community is that people want to support these small businesses," said Smith. "And it’s our job to give them something kind of cool or different."

Smith does have one request of patrons — be kind and generous to your servers. They’ve been through a lot this year.

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