The future of outdoor dining in Detroit

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Patio season has taken on a whole new meaning since the pandemic began.

Pivot. Rotate again. Rethink, replan and reorganize. This is the sometimes exhausting reality for restaurateurs and staff. But this flexibility offers creative opportunities for staff as well as exciting new changes for customers. It’s also why many business owners welcomed the news that the Detroit City Council in March extended its temporary expansion of outdoor dining. Until November 2022, bars and restaurants in Detroit will be allowed to maintain seating and service areas in parking lots, parking lots and some streets.

For many business owners, the ability to use outdoor space is a lifesaver. By expanding outdoors in parking lots and on sidewalks, restaurants such as Mootz Pizzeria, Rose’s Fine Food, Second Best and Besa have been able to increase capacity while maintaining social distancing during the many waves of COVID.

In February 2020, Bedrock donated a few propane-powered outdoor heaters to its tenant, Mootz Pizzeria and Bar, on Library Street near popular downtown Belt Alley. At the time, it seemed like a nice but small gesture for Mootz operating partner Lisa Walters. Then the pandemic hit, and that simple kindness became an absolute necessity.

“We had thought about a patio, but it was sort of a dormant thing,” says Walters. “It was something we wanted to do, but it wasn’t front and center until COVID hit.” Even after restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen, Walters noted that many of his guests were still more comfortable outdoors. Walters and staff have continued to upgrade outdoor seating, adding speakers, a rain awning, fans, and dozens of planter baskets, which add a welcoming splash of bright color.

“Our terrace was a game-changer,” says Walters. “This patio has been full the whole time since we opened it.”

The enclosed patio of Mootz Pizzeria and Bar in downtown Detroit.
Mootz Pizzeria and Bar

Molly Mitchell, owner of Rose’s Fine Food in the east end of town, agrees some diners are still hesitant when it comes to eating indoors. “There are so many surges and issues going on with a pandemic that there are a lot of people who are still not comfortable dining in a restaurant,” she says.

To make his guests more comfortable and take advantage of his outdoor space, Mitchell gradually transformed the restaurant’s parking lot into a garden and dining terrace. Partnership with an agricultural adviser From root to flowering, 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 the tables. Like Mootz’s patio, Rose’s outdoor space is constantly evolving: the abundant flowers are replenished throughout the year, and the vegetable garden provides a lush green contrast to the brightly colored picnic tables scattered across the gravel. White.

Mitchell says the exterior changes reflect the radical transformation of the company itself over the past two years. “I accidentally opened a new business,” she says. The 2022 Rose’s is radically different from the Rose’s which opened in 2014. “Just in the middle of pivoting and pivoting and pivoting, we found ourselves with a new business model and we really like what we’re doing now.”

In addition to devoting resources to outdoor dining, she also credits the restaurant’s bread and wine club with meeting community needs and providing support funds. “It was like a million baby steps,” says Mitchell, “but we maintained our philosophy of doing everything in house and giving everyone a living wage.”

For Gerti Begaj, managing partner of downtown Besa, keeping his staff has also been high on his list of priorities during the pandemic. “The first shutdown had an impact on all the staff,” he says. “We love what we do and we want to be part of people’s celebrations.” This is what prompted him to install pergolas next to the restaurant, directly on Congress Street. The pergolas were softly lit and enclosed on several sides, providing an intimate refuge from the busy downtown streets. “Even though there were only four pergolas, being able to have them allowed some of us at least a few days a week to get back to this somewhat normal routine,” he says. The pergolas were installed in December 2020, after a closure of restaurants inside the restaurant in November 2020 convinced him he needed outdoor dining to keep his business open.

This investment has paid off for Begaj. “I don’t think there’s been a day where we haven’t installed all four pergolas at least twice,” he says. He also credits the restaurant’s pergolas and patio, which were part of the 2018 opening design, for keeping his kitchen equipment in good working order. The equipment in his restaurant is designed to be used 14 to 16 hours a day; shutting down equipment for long periods can be damaging. “If you stop using it randomly for three [or] four months,” he says, “and you want to go back and start it 16 hours a day, this equipment is not going to react the way you want it to.

Two pergolas for outdoor dining at Besa in downtown Detroit

Pergolas in downtown Besa have become something of a staple for much of the pandemic.
Besa

Begaj retained the pergolas until the summer of 2021, then removed them but continued to rely on the restaurant’s existing patio. He removed the pergolas because customers weren’t always comfortable sitting in the street, he says. Despite this, Begaj says the pergolas were a necessary and welcome addition to the restaurant during their stay. “It was nice to be out in that corner and hear people laughing and clapping and enjoying a good meal,” he says.

Corey Clavet, bartender at Second Best in Brush Park, finds that not only are customers more comfortable dining outdoors — weather permitting — but outdoor gatherings in Second Best’s parking lot have inspired staff creativity and planning. Second Best shares parking with the ACLU. When ACLU staff worked primarily 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 birthday party. Dogs Barking Lot. “The original goal for this one in 2020 was to have an event where people can still social distance, still hang out with their group of people, and still be able to go out and party like it’s not the case. [the] middle of a pandemic,” she says. “People still love it and we have a huge turnout every time we have an outdoor event.”

Restaurant profit margins less than 5% on average; this means that even adding a few seats to attract diners has the potential to make a huge difference. Patio season can make or break a restaurant’s annual budget, pandemic or not, and despite Michigan’s capricious weather. Al fresco dining increases profit margins – Walters notes that Mootz seats 99 people indoors and the patio adds 26 seats, increasing its capacity by 25%. So it’s good news that everyone Eater spoke to agreed that Detroit diners remain enthusiastic about sitting outside.

It’s also good news that, at least for this group, working with owners, neighbors and the city of Detroit has been a seamless experience for the most part, with less red tape and more streamlined processes. Walters and Begaj credit Bedrock’s generosity as landlords, and all four note that it was easy to work with the city in permitting and planning their new outdoor spaces.

Other communities in Southeast Michigan have launched similar initiatives, from patio areas in Ferndale to events in the St. Clair Shores Social District. Most communities have focused on removing barriers to outdoor dining, such as Detroit’s street, alley, and public easement allowance. Drinkers and diners seized the opportunity to go outdoors.

Alfresco dining has allowed restaurants and bars to survive a potentially devastating time. By adding seating, leaning on friends and neighbors, and thinking creatively, restaurateurs have overcome the challenges of COVID and developed agile strategies to adapt to change. “Where we are today is totally unrecognizable” compared to 2020, Mitchell says. “But we came out on the other side a much stronger company and a stronger team.”

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