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Restaurant lifeline: Dining in the great outdoors

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Matt Kealy owns Janesville's Drafthouse

MADISON (WKOW) -- As Wisconsin's restaurant industry reels from the pandemic, operators try to hold onto a lifeline to desperately needed revenue by doing everything they can to extend the outdoor dining season.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see people sitting out here in November and December," owner Matt Kealy of Janesville's Drafthouse says of his patio with more than a half dozen tables and three, large cylinder-shaped, torch-style heaters.

To appreciate how vital outdoor dining has been to some establishments during a pandemic with significant restrictions to gatherings indoors, one has to go no farther than Fitchburg's Great Dane restaurant. "It's probably two thirds of our business," General Manager Megan Dresen says.

And until at least early November, Gov. Evers's public health order restricts restaurants to twenty-five percent capacity in their dining rooms. "None of us have a business model that works at twenty-five percent capacity," Kealy says.

Kealy and other restaurateurs are implementing a variety of architectural changes and deploying warming devices to try to defy Wisconsin's onset of fall and winter cold. "We're looking at getting something to block some wind," Kealy says. "Trying to work with what meets code and what doesn't meet code."

In Janesville and other cities, there is some conflict with what restaurant operators propose to shield customers from the elements and what regulators deem safe from a fire perspective, and the need to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

Madison's Streatery program has allowed several dozen restaurants to seize sidewalk and street space to expand their outdoor dining footprints to maximize this safer environment in connection to COVID-19.

The program was recently extended to April 14, 2021, creating the opportunity for participating businesses to stay outside in the public right of way with the city's blessings.

The opportunity is replete with rules and regulations.

"Every day we're talking with business owners about what their dreams are, and then what reality is and how we can get them to work together," says program coordinator Meghan Blake-Horst.

"We look at what people want to do with tents," Blake-Horst says. "We have to talk to them about, 'How does that affect your occupancy?' If you put walls up, you're now an inside establishment, and so how are you going to operate?" she says.

Blake-Horst says beyond traditional, fire code regulations on outdoor heating sources, the core principle on rules related to COVID-19 revolves around ventilation.

Ventilation represents the obvious advantage to outdoor dining in a pandemic, and restrictions on ventilation are closely scrutinized. "That is always our focus, making sure we have community safety," Blake-Horst says.

In Milwaukee, restaurateurs have also pushed for an extension of the city's outdoor street dining program.

An industry group launched a marketing campaign to persuade people of the fun and adventure of being in restaurant patios and street seating in the cold. "This is about enjoying winter outside," Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District chief executive officer Beth Weirick tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Restaurant operators also know there's a continuing, customer mindset about being in confined, indoor spaces in the pandemic.

Marianne Pilger speaks to it as she enjoys lunch with a friend on Fitchburg Great Dane's dining patio. "I just can't put my health in jeopardy and bring COVID home to my family, friends, so being in a safer environment outdoors is pretty important to me," she says.

Madison's Black Locust Cafe owner Jon Reske is ahead of the curve when it comes to creatively courting customers to experience dining outdoors in the winter. In 2019, Reske purchased a half dozen domes from a Tampa firm and placed them on his property in its inviting courtyard.

Domes were reserved by groups who were served family-style meals in an atmosphere made intimate and enchanting by bringing in pine trees to surround the domes, along with any snowfall. "And it really made the year," Reske says.

"It's just magical, it's like being in a snow globe out there," diner Kathy Geist says.

Other Madison restaurants are moving to mimic Reske's approach. A dome sits on a corner of The Madison Club's third floor restaurant patio with a spectacular view of Lake Mendota.

Reske plans to bring back his domes. He says their presence this year will be vital to his establishment surviving the pandemic financially. "The math we've done is based on six people per dome," Reske says. Reske's property and courtyard are on private property and not governed by the Streatery Program's rules. But there's scrutiny of structures in outdoor spaces of all city restaurants.

Reske chooses to believe the concept will receive approvals as it did pre-pandemic, as opposed to the possibility city officials will consider domes indoor dining and subject to the much more significant restrictions. "It would be a killer," Reske says. "It would be a back breaker. It wouldn't be a break even scenario."

Negotiations continue between government officials and restaurant owners about what cold weather, outdoor dining should safely look like. Blake-Horst stresses city officials know the stakes for the industry.

"It's incredibly important, it's important to our culture, our community, what we represent as a 'foodie city, and it's incredibly important we help them survive," Blake-Horst says.

A recent Wisconsin Restaurant Association survey showed a third of respondents believe they would be out of business in months if pandemic, operating conditions were unchanged.

And as much as Janesville's Kealy remains optimistic this unprecedented year will include diners embracing the out-of-doors in colder weather as never before, he's also a realist. "I think it's a tough winter ahead for all of us."

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Tony Galli

Reporter, WKOW

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