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Behind The Bar: Keeping Warm & Keeping Sane

Winterizing our outdoor spaces is critical for our businesses—and for our mental well-being. Greg Engert, beer director and partner in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, offers practical tips and important perspective.

Greg Engert Dec 28, 2020 - 8 min read

Behind The Bar: Keeping Warm & Keeping Sane Primary Image

On the patio at Dovetail Brewery in Chicago. Photo: Stephanie Caceres.

COVID-19 has been merciless this year, showing no sign of letting up as we approach 2021. Its effects have been nothing short of disastrous, and winter’s arrival has only proven, quite predictably, to exacerbate the situation for all of us. Business remains precarious for bars, restaurants, taprooms, and brewpubs, particularly as crisp, sunny fall days give way to the dark, rainy/snowy bluster of early winter. While retail continues to be the lifeblood of the hospitality industry, on-premise drinking and dining has proven necessary over the past few months—and not just to generate the cash we all so desperately need.

We need to socialize, to have a modicum of safe, properly distanced (and masked) face-to-face interaction to maintain our sanity, and humanity, during the pandemic.

This virus has dispelled the idea that we were all fast becoming willing participants in an isolated, perfunctory existence—one where human contact would be replaced by a mediated life via gadgets and social media. What the pandemic has made increasingly clear is that humans are social beings who require public arenas in which to gather. No amount of delivery, carryout, Instagram, Zoom, or Netflix can serve to fully mechanize us. Bars, restaurants, taprooms, and brewpubs are hurting—but they are not actually endangered in the long run.

Much has been made about the pitfalls of social gatherings—and rightfully so, especially as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. But enjoying the company of others—even during the pandemic winter—can be done safely in the right settings. I’d argue that our businesses are far better equipped to manage safe interactions, particularly compared to private gatherings where enforcement can run the gamut from extreme caution to carefree. It is our duty to ensure safety. Strict rules on social distance, table size, crowd control, sanitizing, and mask wearing elevate the responsibility beyond individual choice to provide real protection for our communities.

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Mask wearing is of paramount importance. We have had great success staying open during COVID-19 by insisting that our staff stay masked at all times and that all guests use masks unless actively eating or drinking. Empowering our staff to politely and positively maintain this directive has been key; while there is occasional pushback, gentle reminders—whether to guests moving about the space or to seated guests as a staff member approaches—are effective; this has maintained the safety of our spaces for staff and guests alike. It has also signaled our commitment to public health, which in turn has both garnered us new guests and increased the likelihood of their return.

Keep Them Warm, Keep Them Coming

Yet each return encounters increasingly inclement weather.

Knowing that many guests will continue to prefer the expansive nature of outdoor seating, we have been hard at work tenting our patios, parking lots, sidewalks, and “streeteries.” We also have seen a number of companies invest in modified awnings, bespoke outdoor dining rooms (or “pods”) and igloos. Depending on the particular climate, or specific day, you may opt to enclose the tents and forego heating elements. Should it make more sense to add warmth to the outdoor space, keep the tent sides up and invest in vertical patio heaters, firepits, and the (continually expensive) propane that fuels them.

Should code and electrical load permit, we have had success installing electric heaters that help save on that fuel cost. Individual seat warmers also have been a boon to business, as have retail sales of logoed blankets, knit hats, and scarves—all perfect for immediate use on a chilly patio. No matter the enclosure chosen or heating element employed, atmosphere remains as important as ever, so we have been stepping up our patio décor, lighting, and music to bring an indoor feel to outdoor drinking and dining.

Toward Safer Indoors

While we focused on retail and outdoor service through summer and fall, the prevailing need to get out and enjoy a beer with family and friends—even as colder weather sets in—made us reconsider our approach to hosting our guests indoors. As with outdoor dining, we found that we could create and control a safe environment that could generate additional revenue for our businesses, keep more of our employees at work, and provide a place for fellowship as the days get darker, shorter, and colder.

Distancing has been even greater indoors due to heightened capacity restraints, and the same uncompromising approach to mask requirements and sanitizing has kept our guests at ease. We have discovered and implemented a host of other initiatives to cautiously carry on with business as outdoor dining has waned in winter.

Only our businesses that use HVAC systems with high rates of air replacement and circulation have opened indoors. For those businesses, we adjusted all economizers on the HVAC units to the maximum fresh-air settings to ultimately increase air changes per hour. We also changed settings on thermostats to allow constant fan operation; this has helped with ventilation while avoiding drastic airflow changes during service.

We upgraded all filters to at least MERV 13 (or higher, when possible), since both the Centers for Disease Control and ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) recommend these kinds of high-performance filters to reduce the spread of aerosols and droplets. When possible, seating arrangements have been situated to keep tables and guests away from air vents, so fresh air can be distributed more easily and cleanly.

Two of the most impactful additions to our indoor spaces during COVID-19 have been tabletop air purifiers and standup humidifiers. The LabCharge Soft Ionic Air Purifiers we added to each indoor table are true HEPA filters (and therefore remove 99.97 percent of airborne pollutants) and cover up to 250 square feet of air from the filter location. This unit scrubs the immediate air and provides a comforting signal to each party that chooses to join us indoors.

Since cold, dry air is believed to facilitate the spread of COVID-19, we have installed AirCare Tower humidifiers at our locations, aiming to maintain 40 to 60 percent humidity throughout our indoor spaces in winter. This unit has an output of up to 1,250 square feet, so a few can go a long way toward maintaining proper humidity levels throughout. We’re also employing smart hygrometers to monitor humidity levels and to notify our teams when adjustments to humidity levels need to be made.

The Human Connection

The need to get out and see one another for good beer, food, and conversation continues, even as the seasons change and the pandemic presses on. With high hopes for what springtime may bring, we find ourselves focused on the present, persistently pivoting in response to the impact of the virus and our inability to remain in isolation. Our bars, restaurants, taprooms, and brewpubs will look and feel different for the foreseeable future. But they will continue to keep us human, and happily so.

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Custom blankets, such as those sold by Grandstand, become both fun and collectible for serious brewery fans braving the outdoors through colder months. Photo: Courtesy Grandstand

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Greg Engert is beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose bars and restaurants include ChurchKey, Rustico, and the Bluejacket brewery, among others.

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