CADILLAC — Enjoying a meal or beverage outside has never been as popular (especially in the middle of winter) as it is right now in Northern Michigan.
While that burgeoning popularity may have been borne more of necessity than preference, many restaurant owners say the changes they're making now to their operations could become permanent features even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Restaurants have been unable to offer dine-in service to customers for several weeks as a result of an order issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to control the spread of the coronavirus.
This pause on dine-in activities had an immediate and dramatic impact on bars and eateries — particularly those that don't have robust take-out, curbside delivery, or drive-through options — and forced owners to get creative.
At the Clam Lake Beer Company, along the sidewalk in downtown Cadillac, staff set up pedestal heaters near several tables so patrons could enjoy their meals outside in relative comfort. Eventually, these were replaced by igloo-shaped plastic enclosures, each with its own heater.
Josh Clark, manager on duty at the Clam Lake Beer Company, said the heat lamps kept the area pretty toasty but for inclement weather such as rain or heavy snow, it's more practical to have the igloos set up.
"We've been pretty busy, all things considered," Clark said. "(The igloos are) full most days. We'll take any extra (business) we can get right now."
Recently, the Cadillac City Council created a social district behind the Clam Lake Beer Company where people can drink alcoholic beverages. Clark said they encourage people to take advantage of the area but have not set up any of their own seating. He said they haven't figured out a way to service the area that would make sense logistically.
Clark anticipates that even after the pandemic restrictions are lifted, they'll continue offering outdoor dining in the wintertime.
At the Lake City Taphouse, patrons can place their orders in several different ways, including take-out, outdoor dining and a drive-thru lane.
Co-owner Sylvia VanLeeuwen said the outdoor dining area was a big hit in the summertime — helping them serve about as many customers as they normally would inside if capacity limits weren't capped at 50% — but interest quickly leveled off when cold weather arrived.
To make the area more comfortable in the wintertime, they've installed a number of burn pits, propane heaters, a shanty and plastic tarps to block the wind. Some of the items have been donated by people in the community.
VanLeeuwen said she thinks the area will help bring in more business this winter — as it is, three or four groups come in daily to make use of the space — but she doesn't think they'll bring outdoor dining back every winter. Once dine-in is available again, VanLeeuwen said she thinks people will overwhelmingly choose to eat inside rather than outside in the winter.
One operational change they will keep around after the pandemic is over, however, is the expanded to-go orders and drive-thru lane.
Similar to a fast food restaurant, they opened a drive-through lane where people can pick up their food without having to get out of their vehicles.
VanLeeuwen predicts many of their customers, especially seniors, will continue to pick their food up using the drive-thru lane long after the dine-in ban has been lifted, not just because of convenience, but also because of lingering concerns about coming into contact with people.
Expanding their takeout service has been a learning process: VanLeeuwen said one of the things they've done to make takeout more appealing is upgrade their to-go containers.
"Who wants to eat a steak out of a Styrofoam box?" VanLeeuwen said.
While somewhat costly to maintain, VanLeeuwen said takeout and drive-thru options have made it possible for them to weather the pandemic and keep half of their staff on with full-time hours.
A few miles away in Lake City, the owners of The Patio on Main also have been making adjustments to bring in more customers during the wintertime.
Co-owner Mary Fuhrman said last weekend they opened their expanded outdoor dining area, which includes fire pits, heater poles and several tents.
Fuhrman said last year was very tough for them, as it was for many other restaurants.
"We had to go from seating people to doing only takeout," Fuhrman said. "People want the experience of being waited on and having their food right out of the kitchen. When you can't do that anymore, that's like 75% of your business."
Apart from the desire to draw in more customers, Fuhrman said they decided to open the outside dining area at the request of snowmobilers, who no longer have to go through the laborious process of stripping out of their snowsuits and gear when they want a meal.
"We'll be keeping the fire pits and tent for snowmobilers (after the pandemic is over)," Fuhrman said. "We probably wouldn't be doing this if it hadn't been for the pandemic."
Another local restaurant that has recently expanded their outdoor dining area is the Pines Sports Bar and Bowling Center.
Owner Mike Blackmer said they they've wrapped a tarp around one of the corners of the building and set up several heat lamps.
"It's giving us a little more business," said Blackmer, who also owns the Dockside Inn restaurant, which has been closed since the start of the dine-in ban; the business model at the Dockside Inn and food expense make it impossible to offer takeout like they do at the Pines, Blackmer said.
Blackmer said he doesn't think he'll be keeping the outdoor dining area open after the dine-in order is lifted.
"People are itching to get back inside," Blackmer said. "This was a year nobody predicted. Once we're open for good, hopefully we'll be in it for the long haul and we'll be able to make up everything we lost in 2020. I think we're going to have a good 2021."