Some Twin Ports restaurants and breweries are closing outdoor dining spaces while others are doubling down on outdoor seating as winter approaches.
Numerous dining and drinking establishments said summer weather drew normal-sized crowds and they relied on outdoor patios to accommodate them. Some establishments will stick with outdoor seating and have new experiences planned to draw customers, while others are halting outdoor seating and hope customers who are comfortable eating inside can sustain business.
A focus on customer experiences
At Earth Rider Brewing's Cedar Lounge in Superior, a tall, white tent houses its customers. Brewery owners have shut down the indoor taproom and believe the tent is a safer option, as air circulates well with help from a centrally located heater, said Brad Nelson, director of brands at Earth Rider.
The brewery hosts frequent events and food vendors to attract customers, like Saturday's event to celebrate the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Nelson said.
"We've been really pleased that people have continued to show up, and just dress a little warmer," Nelson said.
He feels fortunate that Earth Rider had the capacity to hold events and pitch a tent outside. They can accommodate up to 100 people — more than what their indoor taproom can hold.
"We can come up with ideas to help people continue to gather and form community, as well as (keep business) afloat," Nelson said.
Across the bay at Vikre Distillery, co-founder Emily Vikre hopes that excitement over their drinks and outdoor dining experience can continue attracting customers into the winter.
Vikre currently operates only an outdoor patio area, dubbed Café Frenchie. Seating up to 20 people, the parklet offers customers access to Vikre’s reimagined drinks menu, co-owner Emily Vikre said.
“(Drinks still have) that ... Vikre flair and all house-made ingredients and special syrups and things like that. But ... the summer (menu) tilted towards extra-refreshing drinks,” Vikre said.
The distillery’s patio menu includes spiked lemonades, bubbly drinks, slushies and snacks.
The patio also offers a front row view of the Lift Bridge — and a free shot of a low-proof alcohol when the bridge goes up, she said.
With the ongoing pandemic and nearby construction, the distillery had planned for a slower summer. Thankfully, Vikre said, they saw more tourists than they were expecting — enough to keep revenue up.
“I was really amazed at the number of people who still decided to travel,” she said.
In early November, they plan to replace slushies with hot toddies and spiked lemonade with hot cider. Outdoor dining will also be relocated to the parking lot in the back of the building, which will be complete with fire pits, lighting and possibly heated benches, Vikre said.
She’s hopeful that a delicious menu and cozy outdoor space is “an experience worth leaving the house for.”
“(We should be) embracing and living into the fact that we are Minnesotans and we are outdoorsy," Vikre said. "Let's really focus on ways that we can continue to be safe and be really (COVID-19) conscious, but not become isolated."
Emphasis on COVID-19 safety precautions
Grandma’s Restaurant Co. is taking a different approach.
The group, which manages the Grandma’s Saloon and Grill, Grandma’s Sports Garden, Little Angie’s Cantina and Bellisio’s, will close their patios when temperatures become too cold.
Until then, they plan to “hang onto every nice day,” President Brian Dougherty said.
“(An) interesting phenomenon is people are dressing to eat outdoors, so where you didn't used to see people wearing jackets and gloves and sitting outside — you're seeing it now,” Dougherty said.
He knows the eventual patio closures will result in lost customers. But he believes their restaurants can turn profits, which is an estimate based on summer sales, he said.
They’ve prepared for a possible influx of indoor diners by adding new safety features, like plastic dividers between booths. This will also allow the restaurant to seat a higher number of patrons, he said.
“This thing's going to be around for a while, so we need to learn how to coexist wisely with it,” Dougherty said.
The Boat Club, located right on Lake Superior, is closing its outdoor dining Nov. 1.
Even with lower capacities, the restaurant had a better-than-expected summer. Outdoor dining was popular with customers, but outdoor diner numbers dwindled when temperatures dropped, owner Jason Vincent said.
The restaurant considered purchasing shelters that can handle harsh weather, but “it doesn't matter how heated your tent is, people just aren't going to want that option,” Vincent said.
“If there was a magic answer to help extend outdoor dining, I would be all about it,” he said.
They’ve refocused efforts on indoor dining, related safety precautions and educating customers about those precautions. The Boat Club has added socially distanced tables to its large banquet rooms, which helps offset revenue lost from the restaurant’s lower capacity.
Still, Vincent doesn’t believe the Boat Club will turn a profit this winter. He’s primarily concerned about a lack of interest in dining indoors.
“I hear it every single day: ... ‘This is our first time out in seven months. We haven't dined out before, but we feel comfortable dining with you,’” he said. “That's scary that those folks literally haven't entered a dining room in seven months.”
The Boat Club will hopefully make it through the winter, thanks to financial help from the paycheck protection program and other sources.
“We’ll be OK to get through a dismal winter. We certainly aren't going to make money — that's just, hands down, not going to happen,” Vincent said.
Vincent also runs Vanilla Bean, a restaurant that never had an outdoor dining option. Sales at the restaurant have increased each week, which he hopes is a testament to their following of safety precautions.
“We know that we're hopefully doing the right things and people are feeling comfortable because of the steps that they see us doing ... (when) they dine with us,” he said.
Indoor reopenings not likely
At Earth Rider Brewing, their plans to attract customers spans into the holiday season with a “North Country Christmas” event. After this event, their tent will come down, Nelson said.
Nelson said he knows people won’t stay long at their outdoor venue, but he hopes an ice skating path, fire rings, Christmas trees, hay bales, beer and possibly musicians can keep people there.
“There are things that we can do to keep that energy up. Of course, people aren't going to hang on as long when it's cold,” Nelson said.
The indoor taproom will stay closed for now. Nelson said they're considering purchasing an air filtration system, but they're still researching the systems and watching how business changes.
Vikre has also held conversations about reopening the distillery’s 60-person taproom. But each conversation returns to the topic of safety, for both customers and staff, Vikre said.
“The experience ... in a cocktail room (is) one of really lingering and conversing and enjoying yourself,” she said. “It's just not conducive to safety needs.”