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Economy & Business

St. Louis Restaurants Look For Heaters And Inside Options As Weather Cools

Salt + Smoke
Salt + Smoke
Customers dine on the outdoor patio of Salt + Smoke's St. Charles location this summer. The local restaurant chain recently reopened for indoor dining with a new ventilation system, which aims to protect employees and customers during the colder months.

Many St. Louis bars and restaurants have embraced patio dining during the warm summer months as a way to bring in revenue while keeping distance between customers.

But as the weather cools, many are scrambling to figure out how to do business safely.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has been working with local restaurant and bar owners to figure out whether the city can ease up on some restrictions while keeping residents and employees safe.

During a public briefing last week, Krewson said the city may allow bars and restaurants to seat 75% of their indoor capacity — up from 50% now — in the coming months.

“But you would still have to socially distance your tables,” she said. “The fact is, the amount of space you have and the amount of social distancing that you have to do is limiting your occupancy as a practical matter.”

Krewson said tents may be one way restaurants can keep their patios open during the colder months, but she said social distancing and mask rules would still be required.

“We will be more enclosed whether it’s in a tent or whether it’s inside the restaurant, and that increases our vulnerability,” she said.

What can restaurants do?

The key to fall patio dining is keeping patrons warm, and heaters are hard to come by.

Christy Schlafly is the president of Ford Hotel Supply, which sells equipment to local bars, restaurants and hotels. She’s sold a couple of hundred heaters over the past month, but that supply has since dried up.

“Everybody says ‘OK, I want this heater.’ But you can’t find it. They’re just not available. I have been told by the factories they’re sold out until January,” she said.

Schlafly has a waiting list of restaurants hoping to get their hands on the product.

Salt and Smoke
Salt + Smoke owner Tom Schmidt said patio dining is still the biggest contributor to revenue, even after he reopened indoor dining with new ventilation systems last month.

Salt + Smoke co-owner Tom Schmidt said he’s lucky he stocked up on heaters earlier this summer. He said he’s also found a way to safely serve patrons inside his four restaurants.

The local barbecue chain reopened for indoor dining in mid-September with a new ventilation system, which is like an industrial air purifier. He said it spits out ionized particles to neutralize viral and odor particles in the air.

“By kind of adding this extra layer on top of these other very reasonable and simple layers of the health screening and mask usage, I think we've created the best possible scenario for indoor dining throughout the wintertime,” he said.

But the problem is this equipment doesn’t come cheap. Schmidt said the company paid $35,000 in total. That kind of investment isn’t possible for many restaurants, which have spent several of the past six months closed entirely or operating at a limited capacity for takeout orders.

The other drawback, Schmidt said, is the system creates a sterile smell, similar to a hospital atmosphere. “But barbecue tends to always still cover over most other smells anyway,” he said. “That’s obviously a very delicious and encompassing part of our business.”

Schmidt said he’s seeing more customers get comfortable with indoor dining, but for now patio dining is still the biggest bump to revenue.

‘Too many unknowns’

For some restaurant owners, like Mowgli Rivard, indoor dining still isn’t on the table.

“We’re trying to keep our staff safe,” she said. “There’s just still too many unknowns. And with the winter season and more people being indoors, the virus is still spreading — we just don’t see it being a great experience for all of us.”

Rivard opened Little Fox in the Tower Grove East neighborhood with her husband, Craig, late last year. When the pandemic hit, they closed their doors to customers and pivoted toward outdoor dining and carryout.

In July, they debuted a patio restaurant, dubbed Little Fox Summer, on a tented parking lot across the street from the restaurant. Going into the fall season, Rivard is tweaking the name to Little Fox Endless Summer and adding heaters and fire pits with hopes of staying in business.

“There is somewhat of a wait and see what people are willing to do and to enjoy,” she said.

Rivard also installed walk-up windows for to-go orders and increased the restaurant's online wine selection, but she’s worried it may not be enough.

The restaurant, like many across the country, has spent all of its federal aid money — primarily on labor. And as a new business, Rivard has significant loans that are only temporarily deferred.

Rivard said her restaurant, and many others, are relying on Congress to pass more relief legislation soon to help get them through the winter.

“Things could change quickly without any support,” she said.

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