NEW JERSEY — When 10 p.m. hits at Village Brewing Company in downtown Somerville, guests can’t stay inside to finish their beer or order another cocktail due to a COVID-19 restriction, but thanks to outdoor heating, they don’t have to go home.
“They have the option to extend the festivities,” said co-owner Iris Frank, whether it be in front of the restaurant, where she said there are two propane heaters, or under an approximately 4,000-square-foot tent behind the restaurant that she said is heated by four indirect fired forced hot air units.
During Wednesday night’s snow storm, the temperature in the tent reached 62 degrees.
As of Saturday, 4,240 new COVID-19 cases were reported in New Jersey, bringing the cumulative total of cases in the state to 427,417. State orders require restaurants to limit the number of patrons in indoor areas to 25 percent of their establishment's indoor capacity and close their indoor premises by 10 p.m. each night.
New Jersey restaurant owners are using heaters, tents and plastic bubbles to make winter outdoor dining possible for those who are hesitant to eat indoors due to increasing coronavirus cases in the state.
Although heaters open up options, the owners who spoke to NJ Flavor described challenges with cost and declining customer use, especially as temperatures at night dip below 30 degrees.
Charles Murray, co-owner of Ferraro’s in Westfield, said the cost of bubbles — individual domes which must be sanitized between parties and ventilated — would be “astronomical,” but the purchase and maintenance costs of the 10 heaters outside the restaurant is also hefty, and customers have not been taking advantage of them lately.
The 10 heaters cost $400 apiece, and the cost of refilling the propane tanks adds up to $900 per week. These costs are in addition to the $4,000 tent outside the establishment.
Like other nearby restaurant owners, he was hesitant to definitively say the investment is paying off.
“I think it’s worth it in some ways, but not right now, when it’s under 40 degrees,” he said. “Some people will never eat outside, and the outside business has died down in this climate.”
Murray is thankful for his loyal customer base and had a good experience working with the town of Westfield to obtain the permits that are a necessary step restaurants must take before using outdoor heaters.
Although Murray doesn’t see many outdoor patrons this time of year, staff will still put the tables and heaters out as an option while Ferraro’s is open.
To survive winter as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, other owners said they have to be flexible and hope for the best.
Frank said Village Brewing Company purchased the two propane units in front of the restaurant and rents the four forced air units under the tent.
“You have to be a little bit resourceful,” she said. “They are expensive, but we want to give customers the best experience they can have.”
Raziel Gonzalez, owner of Casa Luna Mexican Cuisine on South Doughty Ave. in Somerville, already had two outdoor heaters before the pandemic struck, but bought two more this year. He said the heaters cost around $500 each.
Gonzalez said during busy days he went through four tanks of fuel in a day. But crowds have been thinner lately, with sometimes just two or three tables occupied inside.
Still, “They’re better than nothing,” Gonzalez said of outdoor heaters. “We’re trying to survive this year. When it’s too cold, it’s hard, but some people are too afraid to come in.”
Frank said although heaters, fuel and tents pose operational challenges and can be less than cost effective, “We as owners feel it’s worth it. We know that there’s an end in sight and it’s a temporary situation.”
“It’s the long game, not the short game,” she said.
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