Restaurants worry as outdoor dining faces icy Iowa winter

DES MOINES — At Jesse’s Embers, a steakhouse and seafood restaurant on Des Moines’ Ingersoll Avenue, summertime diners took their business to the parking lot.

Owner Deena Edelstein created a makeshift patio there in June, setting out several large, round tables on the asphalt. The outdoor dining area was adaptable and allowed abundant space for maintaining the required social distance.

It was an instant hit with customers. Edelstein said that even after the restaurant reopened its indoor dining room in September, most customers still requested to sit outside.

After several weeks of mandatory closure in the spring and with the capacity limits that accompanied reopening, Edelstein said the outdoor option made a big difference.

“Since we’ve done the outside seating, we were able to at least cover our expenses and pay our staff,” she told the Des Moines Register.

But as autumn begins and cold weather creeps toward the Hawkeye State, restaurateurs facing the loss of their outdoor safe havens are engaged in yet another frantic round of adjustments. Some hope to keep patios warm and usable for as long as possible. Others are outfitting their dining rooms with more separation and ventilation. And many have resigned themselves to a winter of carry-out and delivery.

Although 60 years in operation have earned Jesse’s Embers a host of loyal customers, Edelstein said she isn’t sure how business will change as the weather does. The cozy dining room and lounge that are part of the restaurant’s throwback charm puts it at a disadvantage.

“We don’t know,” Edelstein said. “I guess it’s just a thing that we will have to wait and see.”

When restaurants reopened in May, many around the Des Moines metro looked to their parking lots, sidewalks and patios as a way to accommodate more customers while keeping tables at least six feet apart. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance recommends restaurants “prioritize outdoor seating as much as possible.” Outdoor activities are generally less risky than indoor, it says.

The city government introduced “Dine Out Des Moines,” a permit program that allowed business owners to convert outdoor space around their restaurants into patios. That’s what Scott Carlson, owner of Americana, Gilroy’s and Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co., did in June, setting out tables in the Americana and Gilroy’s parking lots.

He said the outdoor options were popular all summer, especially at Gilroy’s.

“That’s been popular ever since we did it,” he said. “It pretty much doubled the size of our patio.”

The additional space brought seating capacity back to a pre-pandemic normal, Carlson said — though business stayed significantly slower than in previous years.

Several new restaurants opening right after the quarantine restrictions lifted leaned hard into their outdoor options. Rita’s Cantina in the East Village opened in June and was immediately popular, owner Jeff Bruning said. He estimated two-thirds of the tables were outdoors — a fine alternative with temperatures in the 70s.

And at Club 525, which also opened in June in the East Village, customers flocked to a rooftop patio.

“I wouldn’t have survived if I didn’t have an outdoor venue upstairs,” said owner Larry Mason. “It would have been next-to-impossible to be able to be open because no one wants to be inside.”

But Iowa is not made for year-round al fresco dining. The first snowfall of 2019 was in late October, covering autumn leaves with an inch of powder and ice, and Nov. 12 brought the first sub-zero low. Routinely tolerable temperatures didn’t return until mid-April — five months later.

Restaurateurs are bracing themselves for a slow, difficult season. Business in the winter is often a little sluggish. COVID-19 complicates the matter, as many downtown events are canceled and some local customers may be averse to any indoor dining whatsoever.

“I think the winter’s going to be OK, but I think it’s going to be a little rough,” Mason said.

The pandemic created a crisis moment for restaurants in Iowa and across the country, with a September survey from the National Restaurant Association finding that nearly 1 in 6 U.S. restaurants had closed “permanently or long-term.” Jessica Dunker, president of the Iowa Restaurant Association, says the Iowa hospitality industry lost $1 billion in March alone.

Carlson said he explained the situation to a friend with a hypothetical:

“I said, if somebody walked into your life, and said ‘Hey, for a few months … I’m going to take all of your livelihood away with no warning. But then when I give it back to you, you can never make more than 50% of what you made prior to that,'” he explained. “That’s what’s happened to our industry.”

Option one for restaurants trying to stay afloat through colder months: Order heaters and windscreens, and keep the patio open for as long as possible.

Rick Davis, owner of Health House Foods and Taste of New York in Johnston, said he plans to keep the patio heated through the fall. Davis is using his background in construction to brainstorm schematics for accordion walls that guests can unfurl to create outdoor private rooms.

“So you still have an outdoor product, but you’re blocking the extreme cold or the wind coming in in the area, so it’s much warmer than the rest of the place,” he said.

Rita’s Cantina will also try to keep the patio open as long as possible, ordering heaters and windbreaks.

“Short of having an open fire, we’re going to do whatever we can,” owner Bruning said.

However, preparing a patio for cold weather can be expensive and complicated. Alexander Hall, owner of several St. Kilda restaurants around the metro, said he doesn’t plan to buy heaters or other outdoor equipment to stretch patio season.

“It’s more and more and more and more cost that gets pulled into it,” he said. “A business has got to work out whether an investment in outdoor heating or a vestibule is going to get them the return.”

There’s a supply chain problem, too, as other restaurants across the country look toward the same solutions. Bruning’s heater order is stalled in California. Carlson, of Gilroy’s and Americana, said he tried to order heaters but struggled to find anyone to install the units.

“Because everybody’s looking for the same thing we are, it’s hard to come by,” Carlson said, “A little bit like toilet paper and Clorox wipes.”

Even for restaurants that successfully purchase and install heaters, there’s only so long you can stave off the harsh Midwestern winter. Des Moines restauranteurs are already looking past patio season to focus on safe, inviting indoor dining, and to takeout, an option that got many through the initial round of closures.

Hall, owner of St. Kilda, is begrudgingly developing a menu for delivery. Many of the restaurants’ foods don’t travel well, he said, so the delivery menu will be limited to heartier options. He plans to partner with DoorDash initially and eventually do independent delivery.

“We had never done delivery before,” Hall said. “I just don’t really believe in it.”

Still, something must be done to keep business coming in. Business at the St. Kilda restaurants in the summer, which Hall said is usually the best season, more closely mirrored the slow business of previous Januaries and Februaries.

For dine-in customers, Hall plans to focus on the basics: good customer service and rigorous sanitation protocols.

“We make sure that when we sit our customers down, we ask them, are they going to be comfortable sitting here?” he said. “We’re doing the old-fashioned hospitality thing, you know?”