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Wisconsin Restaurant Owners Facing Deep Uncertainty About Winter Business

Many Restaurants Say Outdoor Dining Has Been A Crucial Lifeline During Pandemic

Two people sit at a table while wearing masks as those around them do not
Brienna Wagner, center, wears a mask while sitting at an outdoor table with Andy Wagner on Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Waukesha. Angela Major/WPR

Tori Gerding, owner of Ancora Coffee in Madison, said she’s not sure what winter will be like for her two coffee shops.

“We are kind of holding our breath and waiting here,” Gerding said.

Ancora offers outdoor seating for customers. It’s part of the city’s Streatery program, which lets restaurants and retail shops expand into sidewalks, streets, and parking lots.

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Most of Gerding’s customers sit outside. But even if they didn’t, the coffee shops can only seat about a dozen customers with tables socially distanced 6 feet apart.

That presents challenges for small business owners like Gerding who have to figure out if the money they’d make being open for the handful of customers they could seat inside would be able to cover the cost of paying workers to staff and clean the cafe.

Restaurants across the state expanded their outdoor dining options to attract more customers during the coronavirus pandemic. But, this is Wisconsin, and outdoor dining has an expiration date. From adding additional heaters to expanding takeout, restaurant owners are trying to figure out different ways to make their businesses viable during the winter.

Gerding will run the numbers, and if she can’t make it work for Ancora, they may only be able to offer carryout during the winter.

“If we need to go back to takeout only, sales will take a giant hit without this Streatery program,” she said. “We would be definitely cutting it close. I would need to look at taking out a loan to keep us afloat in the meantime and … I mean, for all of us in the restaurant industry, everything is so tight. You don’t want to add more debt to your bank account not knowing are you going to be able to repay that debt ever?”

Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said outside dining has been a great strategy for restaurants to expand their customer base.

She said some establishments have put in tents, heaters and extra patio furniture to expand how long they can serve outdoors.

“We are worried, it really depends on what winter has in store for us (with coronavirus cases),” Hillmer said. “What is the percentage rate of new cases, are we having a spike, are we seeing a decrease in new cases? That is the $64,000 question, whether they will survive into winter.”

Hillmer said right now, WRA is predicting 30 percent of restaurants across the state will go out of business during the winter.

“If they are not able to increase their capacity safely inside once they can’t use the outdoor dining option it is going to be really, really hard to be solvent,” Hillmer said.

At Heaven’s Table BBQ on Milwaukee’s East Side, owner Jason Alston said a lot of his business transferred to carry-out during the pandemic.

Heaven’s Table has put plastic barriers up inside and offers outdoor seating. Alston said because outdoor seating isn’t going to be available in the winter, he’s opening a second location in Wauwatosa, which will be all carry-out.

“We’re putting a system together for people to order and have food delivered to their homes,” Alston said. “We’re installing a butcher shop (in Wauwatosa), so people can buy our products cooked or uncooked. We’re trying to do the best we can.”

Mi Casa Su Casa Café in Milwaukee’s Brewers Hill neighborhood is planning to open additional indoor seating before it gets too cold for customers to sit outside, said Brad Revels, an employee. Revels said he thinks people will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor dining.

Pedro Pineda, owner and manager of Jalapenos Mexican Restaurante & Bar in Wausau, said he feels a lot of uncertainty about what winter will be like for his restaurant.

“I want to believe that it’s going to be okay, and that’s one of my hopes,” Pineda said. “I’m going to try to be ready for it.”

Pineda said he sees about an even split of customers who prefer sitting outside versus inside. He said he’s chosen to voluntarily limit the restaurant’s capacity to 50 percent indoors in order to space tables out, a move which has presented challenges at times when the restaurant is busy and Pineda is forced to use a wait list.

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