Patio season has taken on a whole new meaning since the onset of the pandemic.
Pivot. Pivot again. Rethink, replan, and rearrange. That’s the sometimes-exhausting reality for restaurant owners and staff. But that flexibility brings creative opportunities for staff as well as exciting new changes for guests. That’s also why many business owners welcomed the news that the Detroit City Council in March extended its temporary expansion of outdoor dining. Through November 2022, bars and restaurants in Detroit will be permitted to maintain seating and serving spaces in parking lots, parking spaces, and some streets.
For many business owners, the ability to use outdoor space is a lifeline. By expanding outdoors into parking spaces and onto sidewalks, restaurants such as Mootz Pizzeria, Rose’s Fine Food, Second Best, and Besa were able to increase capacity while maintaining social distancing during COVID’s many waves.
In February 2020, Bedrock donated a few outdoor propane heaters to their tenant, Mootz Pizzeria and Bar, on Library Street near the popular Belt alley downtown. At the time, it seemed like a nice but small gesture to Mootz’s operating partner Lisa Walters. Then the pandemic arrived, and that simple kindness became an absolute necessity.
“We had thought about a patio but it was a back-burner type of thing,” says Walters. “It was something we wanted to do, but it wasn’t at the forefront until COVID hit.” Even after restaurants and bars were permitted to reopen, Walters noted that many of her guests were still most comfortable outdoors. Walters and staff have continued to improve the outdoor seating, adding speakers, a rain-blocking awning, fans, and dozens of planter baskets, which add a welcoming splash of bright color.
“Our patio has been a game changer,” says Walters. “That patio has been full all the time since we opened it.”
Molly Mitchell, owner of Rose’s Fine Food on the city’s east side, agrees that some diners are still hesitant when it comes to indoor dining. “There are so many ongoing surges and issues with a pandemic that there are a lot of people that are still not comfortable dining in a restaurant,” she says.
To make her guests more comfortable and to capitalize on her outdoor space, Mitchell has gradually transformed the restaurant’s parking lot into a garden and dining patio. Partnering with agricultural consultant Root to Bloom, Mitchell planted vegetables and herbs six feet between the space’s picnic tables. This served a dual purpose: While growing produce for the restaurant, the garden beds also created six feet of distance between tables. Like the patio at Mootz, the outdoor space at Rose’s constantly evolves: Abundant blooms are replenished throughout the year, and the vegetable garden provides a lush green contrast to the brightly hued picnic tables scattered across the white gravel.
Mitchell says that the outdoor changes mirror the radical transformation of the business itself over the past two years. “I accidentally opened a new business,” she says. The Rose’s of 2022 is dramatically different from the Rose’s that opened in 2014. “Just over the course of pivoting and pivoting and pivoting, we ended up with a new business model and we really love what we’re doing now.”
In addition to pouring resources into outdoor dining, she also credits the restaurant’s bread-and-wine club with answering community needs and providing sustaining funds. “It was like a million little steps,” Mitchell says, “but we’ve maintained our ethos of everything homemade and getting everyone a living wage.”
For Gerti Begaj, managing partner of downtown’s Besa, keeping his staff employed has likewise been at the top of his priority list during the pandemic. “The first shutdown took a toll on the entire staff,” he says. “We love what we do and we want to be part of people’s celebrations.” That’s what prompted him to install dining pergolas on the side of the restaurant, directly on Congress Street. The pergolas were softly lit and enclosed on several sides, providing an intimate hideaway from the bustling downtown streets. “Even though it was only four pergolas, being able to have that kept some of us at least a few days a week going back to that somewhat normal routine,” he says. The pergolas went up in December 2020, after a November 2020 restaurant indoor dining shutdown convinced him that he needed outdoor dining to keep his business open.
That investment paid off for Begaj. “I don’t think there was a single day where we did not have all four pergolas seated at least twice,” he says. He also credits the pergolas and the restaurant’s patio, which was part of the 2018 opening design, with keeping his kitchen equipment in working order. His restaurant’s equipment is designed to be in use for 14 to 16 hours every day; shutting the equipment down for long periods can be damaging. “If you randomly stop using it for three [or] four months,” he says, “and you want to go back to start it up for 16 hours a day, that equipment isn’t going to respond the way you want it to.”
Begaj kept the pergolas until the summer of 2021, then retired them but continued to rely on the restaurant’s existing patio. He removed the pergolas because guests weren’t always comfortable being seated in the street, he says. Despite that, Begaj says the pergolas were a necessary and welcome addition to the restaurant while they were there. “It was nice being outside on that corner and just hearing people laugh and cheering and enjoying a good meal,” he says.
Corey Clavet, bartender at Second Best in Brush Park, finds that not only are guests more comfortable dining outdoors — weather permitting — the outdoor gatherings in Second Best’s parking lot have inspired creativity and planning from the staff there. Second Best shares a parking lot with the ACLU. When the ACLU staff was mostly working from home, and on weekends, they allowed Second Best to use their parking spaces to host events, including food truck rallies, kiddie pool parties, and the Barking Lot dog party. “The original goal of it in 2020 was to have an event where people can still socially distance, still hang out with their group of people, and still be able to go out and party as if it wasn’t [the] middle of a pandemic,” she says. “People still love it and we have a huge turnout every time we do an outdoor event.”
Restaurant profit margins average less than 5 percent; this means that adding even a few seats to entice diners has the potential to make a huge difference. Patio season can make or break a restaurant’s annual budget, pandemic or no pandemic, and despite fickle Michigan weather. Outdoor dining boosts profit margins — Walters notes that Mootz seats 99 people indoors and the patio adds 26 seats, increasing her capacity by 25 percent. It’s good news, then, that everyone Eater talked to agreed that Detroit diners remain enthusiastic about outdoor seating.
It’s also good news that, at least for this group, working with landlords, neighbors, and the City of Detroit has for the most part been a smooth experience, with less red tape involved and more streamlined processes. Walters and Begaj credit Bedrock’s generosity as a landlord, and all four note that the city was easy to work with on permitting and planning for their new outdoor spaces.
Other southeast Michigan communities have launched similar initiatives, from Ferndale’s Patio Zones to St. Clair Shores’ Social District events. Most communities have focused on removing barriers to outdoor dining, like Detroit’s extension on the street, alley, and public easement allowance. Drinkers and diners have embraced the opportunity to go alfresco.
Outdoor dining has allowed restaurants and bars to survive a potentially devastating period. By adding seating, leaning on friends and neighbors, and thinking creatively, restaurant operators have weathered the challenges of COVID and developed nimble strategies to adapt to change. “Where we are today is totally unrecognizable” compared to 2020, says Mitchell. “But we came out the other side a much stronger business and a stronger team.”