COLUMBIANA, Ohio – Outdoor seating was a boon to the area’s restaurants and pubs this summer, allowing them to offset pandemic-related reductions in seating capacity.
As the weather turns colder, many establishments are looking to extend patio season. They’re bringing in tents, space heaters and fire pits to keep customers warm.
Birdfish Brewing in Columbiana has a lot of patio space. But it’s looking to add even more. The popular craft brewery is preparing to open a new indoor space and also expand its side patio farther into the parking lot.
The indoor space is in the rear of Birdfish’s building on Park Avenue and opens up onto the side patio. Co-owner Josh Dunn says the room will hold 25 to 50 people.
“It doubles our taproom size,” he says.
For the side patio, Birdfish plans to erect a large tent and install space heaters to maintain outdoor seating a bit longer. Because of the social distancing regulations, capacity remains in flux and can change by the minute, Dunn says. It depends on the size of each group.
“Our taproom normally holds 90 but with the tables separated now, it’s 60,” he says. “But if everyone came in alone we’d seat 10.”
State law limits groups who sit together to 10. But Birdfish’s 10 indoor tables seat only six. Birdfish doesn’t sell food but a food truck is on-site most days.
Like Birdfish, Charbenay’s Wine on the River in Warren has a very large patio. It also has a kitchen that offers dinner entrees and co-owner Charlene Butcher hopes the outdoor dining and socializing season lasts as long as possible.
But in case it doesn’t, she’s looking into putting up a large tent. “We’re planning an Oktoberfest and a chili cook-off this month,” she says.
To some extent, Charbenay’s patio is already prepared for autumn temperatures. “We have eight fire pits that people can sit around in the afternoon and early evening,” Butcher says.
Prima Cucina Italiana in downtown Youngstown has been a hit since it opened in June. Its patio tables are filled most evenings.
With cooler temperatures on the horizon, owner Josh Santangelo is mulling a plan to place a permanent awning with removable plastic walls over the patio. But for now, he will place upright propane heaters on both sides of the patio to extend the outdoor season.
“At least we’ll be able to get through the fall, until we see what we can do about [installing a permanent structure],” Santangelo says.
Mojo’s Pub and Grill in Austintown added a 100-seat patio to its existing patio this summer and it helped a lot, says owner-chef John Marino.
“The patio saved us throughout the summer,” he says. “We were constantly full and we’re still getting tables out there.”
Marino says he will bring in propane heaters to help to keep it full – weather permitting. “They’re nice but somewhat limited,” he says. “They don’t help if it rains.”
Many restaurants have seen steadily rising numbers for indoor dining in recent months, including Mojo’s.
“There are two viruses out there: the coronavirus and the fear of the coronavirus,” Marino says, explaining that customer confidence is the key. “My main goal since Day One is to ensure safety. An employee just asked me if we could squeeze in one more table and I said no. I want customers to come back in and sit at a table and then come back again because they felt safe.”
At Riser Tavern in Boardman, owner Lisa Lorelli also saw a steady rise in business throughout the summer.
“There are still a lot of people who are afraid to eat out,” she says. “But our business is now as good as it was last year at this time.”
Riser expands its patio seating onto the adjacent sidewalk during the evening. “We put tables all along it, and have live music on Friday,” Lorelli says.
She hopes to continue the practice as long as possible but stopped short of saying she will put up a tent or temporary shelter.
“I don’t think we could do that,” she says. “It’s not feasible with our parking lot.”
In August, Gov. Mike DeWine moved up the closing time for places that serve alcohol. Last call for drinks has become 10 p.m. and the room must be closed by 11 p.m.
While the measure reduces the spread of virus, it also cuts into revenues. At the request of restaurant groups, Gov. DeWine said he is considering moving the curfew back by an hour or two.
At places like Birdfish and Charbenay, it’s a non-issue because they have always closed at 10 or 11 p.m. But Riser Tavern’s Lorelli strongly favors a later curfew. “They need to move it back to at least midnight,” she says. “We are strong on food [sales]. People really enjoy our chef’s food. But [the 10 p.m. last call] is only halftime during an NFL game.”
Lorelli says she wants all restrictions to be rolled back. “I am ready to have full capacity, not 50,” she says. “I’m ready for hours to be extended. And no masks. I’m ready for the whole game to get started. I’m not taking a political stance. I’m just ready for everything to reopen.”
Mojo’s owner Marino says he doubts the governor will move back the closing time because colder weather could bring a resurgence of the virus. “My biggest concern is, are they going to shut down dining again and go back to just takeout,” he says.
Alcohol sales in Mojo’s bar area account for 30% of the restaurant’s receipts. “I’ve easily lost 20% of my liquor sales since the curfew – and that’s being conservative,” Marino says.
Mojo’s has a comedy club on its lower level that books touring national acts. It has been closed since March. “We used to have crowds until 2 a.m.,” he says. “I lost all of that revenue.”
Extending the hours for alcohol sales won’t help, and the capacity limits the state imposed are not the only reason why.
“I feel that people will not come out to laugh and have a good time because of the possibility of getting sick,” Marino says. “People will still go out and eat because it is a more controlled environment. In order for a comedy show to be a good time, typically you need to loosen up. Which is everything health authorities are instructing us not to do.”
Pictured: The side patio area at Birdfish Brewing in Columbiana will soon be expanded. The owners plan to erect a large tent and install space heaters.