As October brings cooler temperatures to Iowa City, many downtown restaurants that heavily utilize and rely upon outdoor patio seating for socially distanced business during COVID-19 are being forced to reevaluate their plans for the upcoming season.
Iowa City Downtown District Director of Operations Betsy Potter said as of right now, businesses in the downtown district plan on using outdoor patios for as long as possible, weather permitting.
“At this point, we are keeping them out as long as the patio season will allow for,” Potter said. “It will be a little weather dependent … We know that there will be some cooler days and some rainy days, but that’s with anything, and so, we are planning on keeping those out as long as possible.”
Potter said when the weather in Iowa City becomes cooler and more difficult for restaurants to using outdoor seating, the downtown district is considering how it can aid those restaurants in still utilizing outdoor seating or how to best accommodate guests during this time.
With temperatures mild still, Potter said this gives restaurants some time to weigh their options and create plans that will benefit them most when outdoor seating becomes more unreliable.
“With a lot of restaurants, you’ll see the dividers that are up in the dining restaurants, you’ll see them making a lot of changes to their inside layout and things, but there’s been a little time now for people to be educated on how we can do this best, both indoors and outdoors. So that’s what everybody is doing – figuring out what works best for them,” Potter said.
Lindsay Chastain, co-owner of downtown restaurant The Dandy Lion, said using outdoor picnic tables over the past summer greatly boosted the restaurant’s sales.
“Before the regulations were lifted for dine-in or outdoor dining, we were doing probably roughly 20 percent of what we’d normally be doing,” Chastain said. “With the outdoor seating and the limited indoor seating, it’s gone up to probably about 60 percent on average of what we’d normally be doing.”
Chastain said she estimates The Dandy Lion will see its sales decrease to 35 percent of what it would normally receive, as a result of limitations from COVID-19 and scarce outdoor seating with the changing temperatures.
Chastain said coming up with feasible solutions to maintain sales, while not being able to utilize outdoor seating, has been difficult, as there is no unilateral solution that can be applied to every restaurant.
“There’s not a lot of good solutions,” Chastain said. “It’s just going to take a lot of creativity and all of the regulations are so different city to city and county to county, so there’s not really a solution that works for every restaurant.”
A section of North Linn Street was blocked off in April to provide outdoor patio seating for the restaurants in the area such as Goosetown Café, and will remain blocked off until Dec. 1.
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Peter Kessler, owner of Goosetown Cafe located in the Northside Neighborhood of the downtown area, said added outdoor patio seating has boosted the restaurant’s sales — prompting customers to visit the restaurant for both the food and the outdoor dining experience.
“We’re the luckiest restaurant in town,” Kessler said. “The fact that we have an entire street closed down to allow for anybody in the community to come down and utilize this seating in an outside capacity that’s distanced very well is an amazing asset we have, and we’ve been able to capitalize off that.”
Kessler said that, during a colder or rainier week, Goosetown’s sales will be around 30 to 40 percent of what they were at this time last year. On nights with warmer weather, however, Kessler said the restaurant can make 80 to 100 percent of sales it would usually make during this time.
“It’s been a bridge to help us make it through the pandemic,” Kessler said. “It’s given us extra revenue to take us into the winter, and it’s a game of survival for March and April.”
Kessler said, with limited inside seating options because of health and safety guidelines amid COVID-19, this has drastically affected the restaurant’s employees and the size of its staff.
“Most restaurants, especially in a college town, we get many, many résumés of people looking for jobs, and there is just no work to offer anyone,” Kessler said. “The patio seating allowed us to make sales, give people hours, and to put a staff in the back of the house as well as the front of the house.”
Kessler said Goosetown Cafe will continue to utilize, seat, and turn patio tables as long as customers are wanting to sit outside.
“As long as people show up, we will continue to seat tables outside and use tables outside,” Kessler said. “It’s a safer way to do service.”
The Iowa City Downtown District and restaurants within it are encouraging customers who are uncomfortable with dine-in eating to consider take-out or delivery options during the winter season, Potter said.
Potter said that downtown is currently seeking to collaborate with various restaurants downtown to come up with creative solutions that fit each restaurant best.
“Right now, we’re starting to look at plans and what we can do for the winter season, or what would be best to implement downtown, or ways we can encourage people to still come downtown and support our restaurants during the colder season,” she said, “but not concrete plans of yet.”