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Black Cat Farm Dinner
A Black Cat Farm Dinner cabana. Photo by Denise Mickelsen
Eat and Drink

How Much Does It Cost a Restaurant to Set Up Outdoor Dining?

Private greenhouses, cabanas, and yurts outfitted with propane heaters and wood stoves are costing local restaurant owners thousands to keep diners cozy this winter.

Caroline Glover, chef-owner of Annette, remembers reading an article back in March 2020 about restaurants in Amsterdam setting up glass greenhouses for socially distant dining. She remembers thinking to herself, “Oh, that sucks. I can’t imagine having to do that.” But months later, in July, Glover searched online for the same article to use as inspiration for her own pandemic-friendly winter outdoor dining options at her nearly four-year-old Aurora restaurant. “We started thinking, ‘This is not going to go away by winter,’” she says.

Glover was right. Colorado restaurants are once again closed for indoor dining under Level Red coronavirus restrictions, meaning only takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining are allowed. And while December has seen some unseasonably warm days, temperatures can drop into the low 30s and below as soon as the sun goes down—right around dinner time. 

Not only are local restaurants grappling with lost revenue from the lack of indoor dining, but owners are also spending money—sometimes tens of thousands of dollars—to offer any sort of reasonably warm and comfortable al fresco dining accommodations. Though financial assistance has been available via Colorado’s Winter Outdoor Grant Program—which has raised $1.8 million for local restaurants—many operators are footing the outdoor set-up bill themselves. Will these last-ditch investments be enough to keep restaurants afloat over the next few months? “People are really quick to judge, to see us white-knuckling, trying to grasp and hang on to our livelihoods, but it is that dire,” Glover says. “A lot of us are in a position that people can’t really even fathom. We’re fighting really, really hard to survive.”

Back in August, when it was still warm enough to eat outside well into the evening, Glover ordered a small $350 greenhouse as an experiment. It took her and her husband and business partner, Nelson Harvey, 16 hours to put the greenhouse together, a huge time suck for Annette’s small team. But they liked the greenhouse and figured it would be the only way to keep the restaurant in business over the winter. Glover ordered 11 more and recruited help from 25 of Annette’s regulars to help assemble them. Her greenhouse village was open by mid-September. 

Annette
Annette’s greenhouse village at Stanley Marketplace. Photo by Denise Mickelsen

Even with assistance from willing volunteers, Glover estimates spending $12,000 on the set-up, a back-of-the-envelope figure that includes roughly $5,000 for new electrical hookups for lights and heaters.

Thanks to a sponsorship from Colorado Yurt Company, Glover also added a large yurt to her al fresco village, to accommodate parties of up to eight. It would have been a $20,000 out-of-pocket expense without the company’s partnership. And even with it, the yurt required electrical hookups, which cost an extra $2,500. “We got a ton of outlets installed and we run electric heaters to every single greenhouse and the yurt,” Glover says. “I don’t even know what that’s done to our electrical bill.”

Patrons have flocked to dine in Annette’s greenhouses, but Glover says the restaurant still wouldn’t be getting by without strong takeout sales. (Case in point: Annette’s burger and bombolinis on its Sunday brunch menu sell out in less than one minute.) While she’s hopeful outdoor dining will remain popular throughout the winter, Glover is also skeptical. “It’s still really novel right now—people are doing incredible things and creating these really intimate experiences that diners are looking forward to—but people will get fatigued of outdoor dining,” she says.

Amos Watts, who opened the Fifth String in August in the former Old Major space in Highland, initially contemplated shutting down his new Tejon Street restaurant until Level Red indoor dining restrictions were lifted. But the success of Annette’s greenhouses inspired him to give them a shot. Watts estimates spending between $12,000 and $14,000 for 10 greenhouses, cozy rugs, decor, several large propane heaters, and other necessities to make the patio seating comfortable for 38 people at a time. 

He opened the greenhouse space on December 3 and is still trying to figure out the right staffing levels; many restaurants schedule additional servers for greenhouse set ups because it takes longer to serve them. But overall, Watts says the purchases were worth the spend. He also thinks that the greenhouses have possibly helped boost the Fifth String’s takeout sales, since diners might be wary of ordering from a dark restaurant that appears to be closed with the absence of indoor customers. He plans to keep a handful of the greenhouses in use, even after vaccines are widespread, for patrons who still feel more comfortable in a private setting. 

“I don’t regret it at all,” Watts says. “I wish reality was different. As long as we’re providing the best service and doing what we’ve been doing, we’re going to come out the other side. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel right now, but it’ll be worth it.”

The Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant spent about $50,000 equipping the patios at its five locations for the cold-weather months, a strategy that includes igloos, a trolley car, and vintage Airstream trailers. To heat the various spaces, the restaurants are spending $600 a week on propane, according to Pat McGaughran, founder and owner of the 34-year-old Fort Collins-born chain. Even so, the restaurants are encouraging guests to BYOB (bring your own blanket).

Igloos at the Rio near Park Meadows. Photo courtesy of the Rio

McGaughran is optimistic that the Rio will be able to survive the next few months. But he knows that won’t be the case for every restaurant. “Many people don’t have resources, the excess funds to purchase propane, heaters, and tents,” he says. 

When restaurants were forced to close down indoor dining for the first time in March, Jill and Eric Skokan took a slightly different approach than most owners. The couple closed Black Cat Bistro and Bramble & Hare, their two downtown Boulder restaurants, and shifted operations to their 425-acre organic farm in Longmont; Black Cat also opened a farm stand and created a fleet of food delivery trucks. Even when restaurants were allowed to serve indoors in late May, the Skokans kept their doors closed, deciding to invest in an outdoor dining setup at the farm instead. 

The Black Cat team hand-built custom glass-walled cabanas to the tune of $8,000 apiece, eight of which are currently open for service; Eric expects to have 10 ready for dining by early January. To keep food hot in cold temperatures as it travels from the kitchen barn to the cabanas, Eric spent thousands of dollars on Dutch ovens in all shapes and sizes and is heating the dining spaces with propane heaters and vintage wood stoves, too. The stoves cost between $300 to $2,200 apiece and even require a new full-time employee to chop a steady supply of wood to fuel the flames.

Eric doesn’t expect to recoup those costs, though he may end up selling off a few of the greenhouses, should restaurant dining ever return to normal. But the farm dinners have allowed the Skokans to keep their staff employed, while also keeping them all as safe as possible.

“The money is unfortunate, but I know for certain that this is better than being closed completely,” Eric says. “If you’re focused on the comparison of my restaurant before COVID-19 to what we’re doing right now, this is terrible. It’s really bad. But if I’m instead focused in the other direction of, What would it be like for all of us if we closed the restaurant completely?, then this is awesome. And it really depends on my state of mind, and whether I’m focusing on the cup half-full or the cup half-empty.”

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