How will local restaurants in Fort Wayne survive a COVID-19 winter?

Restaurants across the nation and the world have been forced to grapple with COVID-19 raging into the winter of 2020. In colder climates like those of Northeast Indiana, traditional outdoor dining, which has been a lifeline for many restaurants nationwide this summer, isn’t comfortable past October or November.

As a result, local restaurateurs are coming up with innovative solutions to make dining al fresco possible year-round. But dealing with the constant threat of COVID-19 in the restaurant industry, which has traditionally thin margins, is not easy.

The Wall Street Journal reports that even restaurants which entered 2020 under the best conditions are struggling to keep their doors open this fall, as federal stimulus packages stall and ample seating room indoors goes unused. For instance, the popular Duck Inn on the South side of Chicago once seated nearly 200 diners between their indoor and outdoor spaces before COVID-19. Now, they can host 44 people tops outdoors only, and their overall revenues are down by about 50 percent, the Journal reports.

The question is: Will local restaurants in colder climates be able to adapt to pandemic conditions this winter, or will the pandemic force them to shutter, go carry-out only, or consider something else entirely?

The patio at Three Rivers Distilling Co. was busy during the summer of 2020.

Bird + Cleaver were early innovators in Fort Wayne's food scene by adding Instagram-worthy yurts to their back patio this fall. According to Co-Owner John Cheesebrew, the yurts were popular and well-received by their customer base, many of whom were regulars.

“Everybody seemed to be pretty excited about them,” he says. “We took a lot of reservations. People were booking out a little bit further and requesting to sit in them.”

Bird + Cleaver added yurt seating to its patio in 2020 as an alternative to indoor dining.

As he and his wife and Co-Owner, Lindsay, prepared for the cooler temperatures, they did some initial research to determine what outdoor dining structures might work for their budget and accommodate the size of their space. The yurts fit the bill—and they offered patio seating with a twist. A large yurt accommodated up to three tables, and a small yurt was more intimate, comfortably seating six.

Cheesebrew feels that the yurts provided a sense of security and safety for Bird + Cleaver's guests this fall.

“People are still not super comfortable dining indoors,” he says. “So they want an alternative to being inside a space. But they also need to be warm. The yurts are kind of an extension of the inside.”

Bird + Cleaver's intimate indoor space.

Despite their success, the yurts were a short-lived adaptation for Bird + Cleaver, who announced their closure on social media  on October 22. The restauranteurs said they decided to tap out for the sake of protecting their staff, family, and customers amidst a shape-shifting pandemic with case numbers on the rise in Northeast Indiana and no end in sight.

"A safe return, to whatever normal looks like, is our end goal," the post said. "Unfortunately, this is the only option that can possibly see it come to pass. So, fingers crossed.... Stay tuned for possible small events, and news moving forward."

Bird + Cleaver announced their closure for the time being on October 22 on social media.

Bird + Cleaver is one of a handful of local, neighborhood-based restaurants in Fort Wayne to close since the onset of the pandemic. One of the first was Bravas on the city's South side, which announced its closure on June 15. Since then, it has changed its status to a "temporary hiatus" on Instagram, hosting pop-up events with its food truck and promising a return in 2021.

With the future of Bird + Cleaver still uncertain, news of this latest closure has hit members of the Fort Wayne community hard, especially fellow small business owners, like Brandon Voglewede, of Lofthouse Creative Company, located across from Bird + Cleaver on Wells Street.

Voglewede says he and his brother/business partner, Aaron, from Decatur initially took a chance on the Wells Street Corridor in Fort Wayne because they saw other small businesses like Bird + Cleaver thriving there, making it an up-and-coming place to be.

Now, watching once-successful entrepreneurs forced to close is deeply unsettling.

"It's concerning," Voglewede says. "It's a really sad scenario, especially given all the momentum that was going on in the Corridor. I think the larger question for me is: If this continues, what does this do the momentum for small business owners, not just on the Wells Street Corridor, but around Fort Wayne, the Midwest, and America, as a whole?"

Lofthouse is on the right side of the building, and a shop called the Honey Plant is on the left side.

To help other local restaurants stay open for dine-in service during the pandemic, a partnership between the City of Fort Wayne and the Downtown Improvement District has installed heaters on the outdoor patios of 14 dining establishments in the downtown area. Other restaurants outside the bounds of downtown are getting creative with their outdoor dining options, too.

Three Rivers Distilling Company (TRDC), located just south of downtown, is installing heated igloos on their patio. The idea has been in the works for some time, says President Marla Schneider. Prior to COVID-19 in the winter season in 2019, Vice President of Operations Katie Silliman initially presented the idea as a fun way to eat outdoors all year long. But the distillery determined it was too much to take on at that point in time.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, their priorities shifted. Schneider says adding igloos to the patio became an effective way for TRDC to make up for lost space inside their restaurant as they socially distanced the tables.

“The square footage indoors is fairly small, so keeping with social-distancing guidelines indoors, we're spreading tables out at least six feet apart, which really limits our capacity,” Schneider says.

Three Rivers Distilling Co. is installing igloos on its patio during COVID-19.

TRDC installed the six igloos last week, after initially announcing their plans in August. The igloos are currently available upon reservation through the end of April 2021. They can seat up to 8 people comfortably. 

While TRDC is the first to test the igloo concept in Northeast Indiana, Schneider says igloos have a proven track record of providing warm outdoor dining experiences in other cities, and she's confident the same will hold true here.

“We called around to other restaurants that have done this in Chicago and Michigan and how they've dealt with (the temperature factor)," she says. "There's a natural greenhouse effect in the igloo. So what we've heard is that it's definitely warmer in the igloo. And in Michigan, they told us it will warm up to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit with that natural greenhouse effect. Then you add a space heater in there, and it's maybe 65 degrees. So, we anticipate that it will be comfortable.”

Even so, while temperatures might not be an issue, the risk of spreading COVID-19 in an igloo or tent is still a threat. The Wall Street Journal reports that patio structures like igloos don't prevent the spread of COVID if someone in your party or restaurant service staff who enters the structure is infected with the virus. The recycled air and small, confined space may actually increase the risk.

While igloos are still potentially safer than dining indoors among guests outside of your immediate party, many experts believe that government action will be needed this winter to close restaurants altogether and offer them financial support, primarily in the form of passing the $120 billion Restaurant Act, which was proposed this summer to protect independent restaurants from permanent closure.

For the time being, TRDC has been seeing strong interest in the igloos among their clientele, who were very vocal on social media about their support, Schneider says. The igloos are already booked on Friday and Saturday evenings through February. Anyone interested can secure a reservation online via TRDC's website

“I think it makes people feel more comfortable,” she says. “But there's also the cool factor of being able to sit outside in the wintertime at night and have the ambiance of being in an igloo.”
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.