Before Jet Wine Bar opens for service each afternoon in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse neighborhood, a staffer fires up the eight-foot-tall, propane-fueled heaters strategically positioned in its twinkling outdoor winter garden.
“At any given time, we can have up to 10 running,” says Qamara Edwards, director of business and events for Sojourn Philly, which operates Jet Wine Bar. “We turned on the first heaters in late October and run them for approximately four hours each night.”
Winter temperatures frequently dip below freezing in Philadelphia, so the heaters extend Jet’s al fresco seating capabilities during pandemic-related indoor dining restrictions. The management team chose their heaters based on affordability, aesthetics and availability, Edwards says, describing the latter as “a major struggle.”
In late 2020, it got colder in many parts of the U.S., and indoor dining was either prohibited or restricted; so the search for economical and effective outdoor heating solutions became the latest hurdle for beleaguered bar and restaurant workers to clear. The market for heaters and fire pits was suddenly exceedingly competitive, and some manufacturers reported a 400% sales increase.
Small business owners had to get creative. Claire Sprouse installed individual seat warmers on the outdoor chairs at Hunky Dory in Brooklyn, New York.
“I was looking for something like a heating pad, but not made from cloth, because we needed to have the ability to sanitize them before and after each guest sits down,” Sprouse says. “Turns out growing up in Texas comes with reference points for some very random things, like these small animal warmers, typically used for chicken coops.”
The seat warmers debuted in November and are popular with guests, Sprouse says. Each one has to be plugged into an outlet, “so it’s not the most elegant setup, but you can only expect so much in the middle of a pandemic-ridden winter in NYC.”
Like Jet, the team at Hunky Dory weighed a number of factors when it came time to heat their outdoor space.
“We needed a solution that would not just provide the most comfort and COVID-safe conditions, but we also wanted something to work for us operationally, financially and on a carbon footprint level, which is why we opted out of propane immediately,” Sprouse says.
To create the heated glass cabins outside the Peaches restaurants in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant and Fort Greene neighborhoods, the owners bought prefabricated greenhouses and installed tables, chairs and individual forced-air heating units.
“Greenhouses are already proficient at capturing the sun’s energy and raising the temperature of ambient air,” says Craig Samuel, cofounder of B+C Restaurant Group, which operates Peaches. “They also have ventilation built in and doors for privacy and security.”
Thus far, guests have comfortably dined in the cabins when temperatures in New York City were below freezing, Samuel says.
“Per month, we’re spending anywhere from an additional $500–$1500 on propane tanks.”—Qamara Edwards, Sojourn Philly
Unfortunately, these gains come at a significant cost.
“We incurred a large initial electrician bill to cover the cost of upgrading our existing electrical structure to accommodate the increase in power usage,” Samuel says. “In addition, even regulating the usage, our electric bill has increased dramatically.”
In Philadelphia, Jet’s propane system has proven similarly pricey.
“The patio heaters need to be changed out every six hours or so… we only get approximately two nights of service from each tank.” says Edwards. “They do provide a better atmosphere for guests, and we could not operate without them. The benefit definitely outweighs the cost, but it does lower the profit margins significantly.
“Per month, we’re spending anywhere from an additional $500–$1500 on propane tanks.”
This pandemic-era loss is particularly notable given the hospitality industry’s notoriously narrow profit margins and minimized capacity.
Sprouse estimates Hunky Dory spends “several hundreds of dollars more per month” on electricity to power their individual seat warmers, though notes it is far less electricity than needed to power most of the outdoor heaters used by restaurants.
“These heating factors are just another way to show how the pandemic has forced restaurants to incur extra costs to stay afloat during these times, while also having to navigate our sales which have been negatively impacted across the board,” she says.
Even as small business owners crunch numbers and move mountains to stay open during the pandemic winter, bars and restaurants remain hubs for their communities.
“In addition to the seat warmers, we have incorporated a blanket program, too, where we also donate blankets to the Ali Forney Center,” Sprouse says of Hunky Dory’s program with the Harlem center for homeless LGBTQ youth. “It’s a way for us to extend warmth beyond our patio, to those who need it most.”