Cooking up creativity: With profits in jeopardy, area eateries extend outdoor dining into the winter
In June, before the warm temperatures at Lake Tahoe had even peaked, Nellie Saia was thinking about the cold winter ahead. As co-owner of FUMO Café, Eatery & Bar in Incline Village, Saia was already chewing on ideas to keep her business afloat during cold months.
While reducing the restaurant’s indoor capacity by half due to COVID-19 was not an insurmountable problem in the summer and early fall thanks to a spacious outdoor patio, when the temperatures drop and the snow falls, Saia feared falling revenues due to fewer outdoor diners.
Her solution: “snow globes” on the patio — clear, enclosed domes that can fit a party of six people.
“I purchased two snow globes so that we could still continue to utilize our patio,” said Saia, noting each patio bubble was roughly $1,000 apiece. “I was thinking about winter back before summer had even hit — I was trying to think ahead of the game. It was a big investment, so I made sure to get them before they were either sold out or they were double the price, because I know they’re super expensive now.”
Reservations are required for FUMO’s snow globes, including $150 deposit, and a minimum of $200 has to be spent by the group.
“Even one extra seat is great, so adding that many extra seats outside is pretty crucial,” said Saia, who is staying optimistic the clear igloos can withstand the at-times severe Sierra Nevada winter. “We’ll see if we survive Tahoe snow.”
Saia and her husband, Jonas Saia, also own Austin’s Restaurant, located less than 500 feet from FUMO at the Country Club Center in Incline.
To expand capacity there this winter, Nellie Saia said Austin’s is planning to put in a 10-by-20-foot heated tent for outdoor dining.
“That’s so we could still see our regular capacity that we would have for the winter since half of our tables are out,” said Saia, estimating the tent will add at least 10 seats. “We haven’t done it yet, but that’s the plan. We’ll see how it goes.
“We’re just trying to keep positive and move forward.”
‘A QUESTION OF SURVIVAL’
A lifeline for many restaurants during the COVID-19 crisis, outdoor dining is in the midst of a seasonal shift that is forcing operators to get increasingly innovative.
“If you don’t, then you’re not going to make it,” Saia said. “We’ve been quick on our feet every day just to pivot and innovate and find things that can keep us going.”
According to the National Restaurant Association, full-service restaurants report that 44% of daily revenue derives from outdoor service. Just under half of restaurants surveyed said they were doing something to extend outdoor service, such as investing in tents or heaters.
Beefy’s in Reno’s Midtown, for one, is doing both.
Owner Roy Brennan said his iconic “little tin can diner” on South Virginia Street has relied completely on outdoor dining and takeout orders during the pandemic. At half capacity, Beefy’s can only sit six people, so the restaurant pivoted to picnic table seating outside.
“I had no choice or I would’ve been out of business,” said Brennan, noting the restaurant’s revenue was down 40% during the first three months of the pandemic. “It’s really a question of survival. I’ve got too much blood, sweat and tears in this place to let it go out of business, that’s for sure.”
To adapt, Beefy’s added a few outdoor dining tents during the summer before doubling down in the fall. As a result, behind the diner one can find an outdoor dining tent and beer garden that can seat up to 24 people on four picnic tables.
The lime green tents are branded with a Sierra Nevada Brewing Company logo, a beer Beefy’s has agreed to keep on tap in exchange for the tents, Brennan said.
Recently, when the cold temperatures crept in, Midtown diner installed heaters and vinyl curtains to insulate the enclosed area. Brennan said staff might even add hay bails to line the inside of the tented space to block out the wind.
“The feedback from the customers has been really good so far,” he said.
Still, with the unpredictability of what a Northern Nevada winter will look like, Brennan said he’s “nervous” about the impacts of cold and snow settling in.
“We’re just trying to make it,” Brennan said. “We’re hanging tough. I’m not expecting a lot this winter, but as long as we can stay floating, we’ll be OK.”
HEATED TENTS FOR OUTDOOR DINING
A half-mile or so north, at the intersection of Wells Avenue and Cheney Street, Von Bismarck is trying to keep its outdoor dining sales cooking through the winter as well.
The German-inspired restaurant installed two heated canvas wall tents that can fit up to 24 people on its south patio, owner T. Duncan Mitchell told the NNBW.
Mitchell said the tents, which he purchased from Elk Mountain Tents, are intended for hunting camps. He also bought wood-burning stoves to tuck inside each tent and heat the enclosure. The total investment was roughly $2,400, he said.
“You can have a wood fire going on in the tent and it actually gets it really nice and toasty,” Mitchell said. “And we’ve been working on them decorated and outfitted and lighted. They look cool and the customers are happy with them. It’s working out pretty well.”
Mitchell said he also invested about $5,000 on heaters to be placed near tables on the restaurant’s north patio, where patrons will be seated if it’s not “actively snowing or super windy.”
Spending close to $10,000 to expand Von Bismarck’s dining area this winter is a significant but necessary cost, he added.
“At the end of the day, everybody’s doing everything they can in this industry,” said Mitchell, who also owns the eatery Shawarmageddon and bar Chapel Tavern in Reno. “You constantly have to be thinking on your feet and changing things up and adapting to the times and keep people coming in the doors. This is just a little more intense than normal.
“If you can’t adjust and adapt, you’re going to be dead in the water.”
STAYING UP TO DATE
Another Midtown eatery trying to survive the winter is Pizzava. Like Beefy’s, the restaurant fully shut down its indoor dining area due to COVID.
However, with delivery and pickup as the restaurant’s business model, it did not add heated outdoor dining. Instead, Pizzava is aiming to increase customer convenience by streamlining its process for takeout orders, said owner Sabri Arslankara.
Early on in the pandemic, the pizzeria added third-party delivery services — such as Postmates, Grubhub and Uber Eats. By the end of the month, Arslankara said, customers can use the Pizzava mobile app to notify the restaurant when they’ve arrived for pick-up (and the make and model of their car) and their pizza will be brought out to their vehicle.
He said the added convenience will hopefully help spur more return customers this winter and beyond.
“You don’t make money on the first order or the second order, you start actually making profit when the customer comes back for the third time, fourth time and they become loyal,” he said. “So, it’s really important to give every single convenient option that you have to them. You have to keep yourself updated and adapt new technologies.”
All the while, Arslankara said Pizzava, which currently has 16 people on staff, is looking to boost its delivery service this winter. In fact, he said the pizza shop has “constantly” been in hiring mode over the COVID crisis.
“Even though we are full (staff) on paper, we still hire extra people just to train and get ready for any upcoming busy times,” he said. “And also with this COVID thing, in case someone has a sore throat or something and has to stay home for awhile, then you need to cover that.”
Meanwhile, in South Reno, Bistro 7 is a spot primed for outdoor dining.
The eatery has a patio space surrounded by stone and stucco walls and covered by an all-weather fabric roof. Space heaters and a fireplace heat the area. With COVID regulations, the patio space can seat a maximum of 30 people, said owner Erin Bogart.
Though the eatery has a spacious indoor dining area that can seat more than 100 people, Bogart said she’s especially thankful to have a patio that can be winterized for the cold months.
“Having it definitely helps us,” Bogart said. “The patio is definitely a bonus and is helping keep us afloat, for sure. We have a lot of great local customers that still want to support us and feel good about the space and feel comfortable coming in. So, we’ve been fortunate in that regard.”
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