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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Server Grant Mitchell opens umbrellas in the outdoor seating area at Stir restaurant on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

It's hard to imagine any restaurateurs who have ridden the COVID-19 roller-coaster more than Max Poppel and Dan Rose at the Flying Squirrel.

When the pandemic hit, they tried to stay open, cutting staff and the menu, only to shut down for awhile almost immediately. When it looked like take-out, delivery and curbside pickup were working for other restaurants in the downtown Chattanooga area, they reopened, and again they adapted their staff, kitchen and processes to make it work.

As the weather warmed, and it became apparent some customers felt safer eating outside, they realized they had plenty of green space next to their building.

They first moved some patio tables there and then added a half dozen picnic tables, essentially equaling the number of seats they once had inside. The moves have not only helped keep them afloat, they've added to the restaurant's appeal.

"It's been a lifeline for us," Poppel said.

While he stops way short of giving the pandemic credit for anything positive, he did say, "It is actually kind of a no-brainer, like duh, we should have done this a long time ago."

But now the weather is beginning to change and Poppel and Rose, like many others who adapted to outdoor dining, are scrambling to find sheating options to keep customers comfortable.

"You can't find the equipment because everybody is looking for it," Poppel said.

"We've been experimenting with everything from the free-standing gas ones we've all seen to wood-burning pits, but we need to make sure they don't blow smoke in customers' faces," Poppel said.

Like Poppel, Mia Littlejohn and Michael Robinson at Proof, a food services-based incubator on East M.L. King Boulevard that also serves food and beverages, put an emphasis on safety and outdoor dining when the pandemic hit. They teamed with the owners of Chatt Smoke House next door to add more outdoor dining tables to a previously unused patio space.

Now they are looking to close in the gated patio area beside their building, and they can't find people to do the work or the heaters or the commercial grade plastic used as wind screens and to keep heat in.

"We are struggling because everybody who does that kind of work is booked," Littlejohn said.

Littlejohn and Robinson serve as advisers to several people in the industry through Proof.

"We were telling people in June to order those heaters now," Robinson said. "We started personally here at Proof looking in July, and we will barely have an option to get them in place by December."

Robinson said he has begun offering to rent heaters from people he knows for the season, and he is trying to work with a local tent and awning company to put up a temporary tent for the winter.

Littlejohn points out that while restaurants now can serve people indoors in their dining areas, the numbers of people getting the virus are going up, and not only is winter coming, but so too are the holidays, which in a normal year provide a great deal of restaurant income because of office parties.

Those are not likely to happen this year. Robinson said that in a normal year, restaurant business drops off about 20% after Dec. 12 because people are spending their money on gifts and family, rather than eating out.

"This year, who knows?" he said.

He added that while restaurants in the East Brainerd area, which has a large number of retail shops and neighborhoods, appear to be doing OK, business was "just getting to a manageable state [downtown], but it is about to drop off" because of many office workers staying home to work.

"We could see a lot more attrition this winter," he said.

Nobody knows what will happen next, Robinson said, and that is leading to more and more stress for restaurateurs. He said some owners are considering shutting down for the winter and "riding it out."

"To be frank, this is where mental health is starting to come into play," Robinson said. "The unknown is stacking up. It's taking its toll."

Everyone is taking hard looks at their businesses, figuring out what works and what doesn't, as they have since March, adapting, he said.

"It's like any crisis," he said. "People are innovative. The fast-casual places like pizza places are doing well. People are getting conditioned to what they have to do in response to the virus."

Robinson believes restaurants in warmer climates may do better than those in places where it is terribly cold all the time, as long as there is not another surge in coronavirus cases.

"I think restaurants may fare better in the Southeast, and hopefully we don't have another shutdown. You have to look for that silver lining and work through it," he said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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