Sep 21, 2021 - Economy

What's in the fall forecast for Colorado restaurants

An outdoor dining table

A weatherproof tent set up outside a Boulder restaurant in March. Photo: Chet Strange/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Outdoor dining options kept many Denver restaurants in business amid COVID-19 restrictions last fall and winter — and now the industry is taking steps to bring the cozy patio tents back.

Why it matters: The impending cold weather, combined with concerns over the Delta variant's spread, have restaurant owners searching for ways to keep diners coming.

  • 6 in 10 Americans are changing their dining patterns going into the cooler season because of Delta variant concerns, according to a recent survey from the National Restaurant Association.
  • Nearly 20% said they don't plan to dine out at all.

State of play: The summer months boosted Colorado restaurants' bottom lines. Reservations were down an average of only 6% through Aug. 9 compared with the same point in 2019, according to OpenTable data.

  • Yes, but: Razor-thin margins, a lack of federal COVID relief, worker shortages and debt accumulated during the pandemic.
  • Industry experts tell Axios that restaurants are limiting hours or even days of operation just to get by.

What they're saying: "For an industry that requires a 'full house' every evening to make a profit, this is a dangerous and depressing trend," Colorado Restaurant Association spokesperson Denise Mickelsen told Axios.

What's next: The Denver City Council is poised to pass a $1 million grant for the Colorado Restaurant Foundation, using federal COVID relief funds. Assuming it's pushed through, local restaurant owners and operators will be eligible for $10,000 to distribute among employees in $1,500 allotments.

  • The city estimates the proposed grants could help support about 950 restaurant workers and benefit nearly 150 employers.
  • The council approved the resolution in an initial vote on Monday. A final decision is slated for Sept. 27.

Meanwhile, restaurants with greenhouses, yurts and other outdoor dining structures are gearing up to use them through the coming colder months, Mickelsen says. Those that didn't last year are now considering weather-proof options.

  • Heated patios will make a comeback, too. Operators of My Neighbor Felix tell Fox31 they're getting heaters ready at their Denver and Boulder locations.
  • Temporary outdoor dining "has been such a pivotal part of our business. We’re talking 72 extra covers, every single night," says Kasie Waxman, who helps run the restaurant in Boulder.

Context: Denver extended its outdoor dining program in May to allow patrons to dine al fresco on streets and sidewalks through October 2022. Boulder recently elongated its outdoor dining rules to run through next April.

The bottom line: Restaurants and city leaders can continue to get creative to keep the industry afloat, but only time will tell if there's a return on investment.

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