Outdoor dining options kept many Twin Cities restaurants alive during COVID-19 restrictions last winter — and now the industry is revisiting whether to keep the patio tents and al fresco fixtures around.
Why it matters: The approaching cold weather combined with concerns over the Delta variant's spread have restaurant owners — who've seen some recovery from the pandemic's hard hit — searching for ways to keep diners coming back.
- Six in 10 Americans are changing their dining patterns going into the fall because of Delta concerns, according to a new survey from the National Restaurant Association.
- Nearly 20% said they won't be eating out at all.
State of play: Summer was good to local restaurants. Across Minnesota, 42% of restaurant operators reported higher revenues this summer than pre-pandemic, said Ben Wogsland, director of government operations for Hospitality Minnesota.
- And, several owners told Audrey they're not expecting indoor dining restrictions again, especially after Gov. Tim Walz gave up emergency powers as part of a deal to avoid a government shutdown in July.
- Yes, but: Razor-thin margins, lack of federal COVID relief, worker shortages and debt accumulated during the pandemic aren't helping.
What's happening: For some, last winter was a test drive for offerings that will be made permanent.
- Utepils Brewing in Minneapolis turned an outdoor beer garden into a year-round operation last winter, hosting live music with a giant bonfire and two-walled "tents."
- And it worked. They saw record-breaking revenue and lines to get in, said Utepils president Dan Justesen.
Meanwhile, there's still a lot of trial and error — and guessing on how hardy Minnesotans are.
- The Freehouse couldn't continue its popular outdoor domes due to ventilation and condensation problems, said Stephanie Shimp of Blue Plate Restaurant Co., which owns nine restaurants in the Twin Cities area.
- Revenue is still expected to drop, she added, but several locations are implementing fire pits, patio heaters and blankets for the determined.
The bottom line: Restaurants can continue to get creative, but only time will tell if there's a return on investment.
- "Last year, I think we were just grateful we had something. Now, we can build on that and see if it'll grow," Shimp said.
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