The expansion of outdoor dining spaces has been key to helping Colorado restaurants and bars survive reduced customer capacities and other pandemic-related hurdles over the past several months, but many owners worry about what will happen as the weather gets colder.  In fact, Colorado Restaurant Association president Sonia Riggs says that 65 percent of the state’s restaurants feel they’ll have to close within six months if nothing more is done to help.

Governor Jared Polis is hoping to provide some aid in the form of a brainstorming workshop and a new grant program that will assist restaurants in designing and building outdoor dining spaces warm enough to welcome guests throughout the winter months. The workshop, on October 19, will provide restaurant owners with information and ideas to create viable al fresco concepts for winter. Restaurants can then apply for a grant to bring their outdoor dining visions to life. The grant money can go toward purchasing tents and heaters, and paying for construction, design, and permitting fees.

“We will 100 percent be applying for the grant,” says Aileen Reilly, co-owner of Denver’s Coperta and Beast & Bottle. “Outdoor dining has allowed us to continue going. If we didn’t have these expansions, we wouldn’t be able to operate. We wouldn’t be able to do enough within the building itself at 50 percent capacity.”

Reilly has already purchased small, enclosed greenhouses for outdoor winter seating, but says she will use the grant money to spruce them up and make them warmer for guests. Mini greenhouses are a popular option for restaurants going into the winter season, with Aurora’s Annette and Grand Junction’s Bin 707 Foodbar already making good use of them—but greenhouses and similar structures come at a significant cost.

“You cross your fingers when making decisions like this, that what you’ve done will pay itself back. There’s still that fear of guest uncertainty and where the weather goes,” Reilly says.

Andy Crawford, co-owner of Boulder’s Attic Bar & Bistro, is also planning on applying for a grant to make his outdoor street seating comfortable for winter. “We’re going to do whatever we can to keep that outdoor component going,” he says.

Crawford says that the biggest handicap for the Attic has been early closing time mandates, which have cut into some of the bar’s busiest hours. Expanded outdoor seating has made up for some of those losses, and he’s considering setting up heated tents or bubbles to utilize his outdoor space all winter long.

To learn more about the grants and cold weather-friendly dining options, restaurants can sign up for the October 19 workshop, which will bring together design pros—the American Institute of Architects Colorado, American Council of Engineering Companies of Colorado, and the Associated General Contractors of Colorado will all be involved—and regulators like fire departments and other experts on safety codes.

Kicking off the grants, Xcel Energy Foundation will contribute up to $750,000 to help restaurants survive until spring. If you’re interested in donating to these funds to help your favorite eateries, you can do so here.

“I feel, for the most part, that the local government is doing things to help,” Reilly says. “Governor Polis and this new grant program—I don’t know anyone around the country doing anything like this, and I think it’s fantastic that Colorado is leading the way.”

Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.