Operation Hibernation

What if patios don't save us this winter?

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A polar bear naps on his stomach near the entrance to a zoo enclosure.
Exhausted by patio talk? Us too. / Suzanne Tucker © 123RF.com

For months, we’ve been talking about the arrival of winter. And while Colorado’s had more than its share of bright, sunny days this fall (notwithstanding a freak early September snowfall), winter is unofficially, officially here. And all those patios in all those variations—temporary, permanent, tricked-out, bare bones, last minute, tucked away, middle-of-a-bike-lane enclaves of outdoor seating—that were packed this summer? Say goodbye.

Unless, of course, you’ve been planning how to winterize them since this summer. Plenty of businesses have been doing just that, hoping that tents, igloos, and greenhouses coupled with heaters, blankets, and Instagrammable après-ski vibes are going to keep customers coming through the doors.

But before you spend thousands of dollars outfitting your outside space, Matt Vannini wants you to take a deep breath. The president of accounting firm Restaurant Solutions, Inc. (RSI) cautions, “Fear-based decisions cost more time and money, and there’s a lot of fear right now. I have independents ready to spend $40,000 on a patio.”

Patios aren’t a viable short or long term solution if [restaurants] don’t have a handle on how much they’re going to make and if they can’t rent the equipment.

Matt Vannini, RSI

Vannini isn’t wholly opposed to that—if it makes economic sense. He says he tries to “drill into [his] clients’ heads” the importance of knowing their budget and breakeven point before they spend a single dime. One of RSI’s clients, Secret Sauce Food & Beverage, is in the midst of implementing big changes on the patios of Denver’s Ace Eat Serve and Steuben’s. Heated, reservation-only igloos with twinkle lights and candles have been installed at Ace; the remainder of the spot’s patio has been covered in astroturf and stocked with fire pits and additional heaters.

At Steuben’s, the restaurant is retaining the 40-by-40 foot tent that took overs its parking lot this spring and installing a “big-time heater…while doing a decoration overhaul to turn it into something cozy and inviting,” says Secret Sauce COO Emily Biederman. It’s also installing a louvered pergola that will be snow- and waterproof over the patio adjacent to the dining room. “It’s a pretty big capital expense,” Biederman acknowledges, “but it’s a long-term solution.”

Not all restaurants have that kind of room to spread out. “We feel very, very fortunate to have the space we do,” Biederman says. And she admits weather will an issue: “There’s no heat situation that’s going to make anyone comfortable when it’s 10 degrees.”

Vannini echoes that sentiment. “There’s no chance of me going to eat at Stoic & Genuine in 10 degree weather,” he says forcefully. “We will do that when we go up to the mountains, because that’s the brand [but not in Denver].” Instead, he says restaurants should consider what he calls Operation Hibernation: shutting their (literal) doors for the season and making sure their (virtual) doors are wide open.

“When we talk to clients and do their breakeven, if [revamping a patio] costs any more than $5,000 to $7,000, they aren’t considering it. They are going to an all-digital presence. I advise restaurants to shut down and hunker down like a bear until spring,” Vannini states. He considers the admittedly tough decision to shutter dining rooms and patios, lay off staff, and focus on just takeout and delivery more likely to help most eateries survive until next spring than investing tens of thousands of dollars in an outdoor space.

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