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Yurts, Igloos, Blankets And More — Restaurants Prepare For COVID-Safe Winter Dining

Diners enjoying a meal inside igloos at Boston's Envoy Hotel. (Courtesy)
Diners enjoying a meal inside igloos at Boston's Envoy Hotel. (Courtesy)

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a heavy toll on the restaurant industry. A sobering report from the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that as many as 85% of individual and small restaurant groups might not survive the year.

Even restaurants that cobbled together a decent summer with outdoor dining and take out worry about what’s going to happen as colder weather moves in. And that’s why many are getting creative.

At Boston’s Envoy Hotel, the rooftop has been converted for cold-weather dining with plumbing, gas, heat lamps — and see-through igloos. To help staff weather the harsh Boston winter, the hotel also partnered with clothing line Helly Hansen to make long, down jackets for them, restaurant manager Joe Mellia says.

“Guests are hungry for something new, unique and different to do,” he says. “So it’s a great winter activity.”

Up in the Colorado mountains, Aurum Food & Wine in the town of Breckenridge is using yurts — circular, more-permanent tents with glass domes at the top — to keep outside dining alive through the winter, owner Phillips Armstrong says. The town is allowing tents with rules about exits and heating.

The yurts are made by CampingYurts.com in Bend, Oregon. Now overwhelmed with orders, the company has a year and a half-long lead time, he says. And the restaurant ordered heat lamps six months ago, but Armstrong says he hears “you can’t find them to save your life” now.

“This was honestly a move that we had planned pre-COVID,” he says. “But then with the onset of COVID, it just seemed like the perfect time to pull the trigger.”

Or what if restaurants in big cities partner with empty office buildings? Or take over parking lots and hang trays on car doors like a ‘50s drive-in?

These are just some of the ideas that have come into Chicago’s Winter Dining Challenge, a partnership between the city and global design firm IDEO. The competition has received 640 entries so far from architects and groups of school kids, with at least 20 coming from outside the United States, says IDEO design group managing director Catherine Corbin.

The challenge puts an emphasis on feasibility and quick implementation, she says, with many ideas centered around items that can be bought at Home Depot. The judges of the competition are thinking about how these ideas could continue beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hopefully next winter, we’re thinking about dining outdoors because we want to,” she says, “not necessarily because we need to.”

Interview Highlights

On the Envoy Hotel’s heated igloos

Joe Mellia: “A dome-shaped igloo that is 12 feet in diameter, so they could accommodate 10 guests within the igloo. And they are about 110, 115 square feet and they’re 7 feet high. Then we have a heater in the igloos, and there are chairs and carpets and tables and cushions. So your reservation is a two-hour time slot. And then after that, there’s a 30-minute opening for our staff to come in and do a deep clean of each of the igloos. We have electrostatic sprayers that we’ll go in, and we’ll replace everything in the igloo. So it’s clean, fresh and sanitized.”

On the cost of installing the igloos

Mellia: “It definitely is [expensive]. We have also gotten approval from our ownership to create six additional what we’re calling ice boxes, where there are six current banquettes that we have separated with plexiglass. We’re looking at enclosing each of those banquettes and making individual cubicles or iceboxes, as we like to call them. And that’ll add another 36 patrons that we could have that will all be individually, socially distanced. Each icebox would have a heater, couches, light, fair foods from our menu.”

On how Aurum Food & Wine’s yurts will work

Phillips Armstrong: “In Colorado ski towns, a yurt is a fancy, more permanent tent. Our yurts are going to be 12-foot in diameter. They are circular. And then it kind of peaks up to a glass dome at the very top of the yurt.”

“Being located in the ski town in Colorado, we definitely have very extreme temperatures, high wind, lots of snow. So we were looking at trying to replace the capacity restrictions because in our county, our restriction is 50%. And so that would cause us to lose quite a few seats inside. And so we thought with the exterior yurts, we’re picking up about eight seats per yurt. And it’s just one party at a time. And they will sit at a circular table. You know, obviously, they’re heated from an infrared light that hangs in the center of the top of the yurt. And we’ll have Pendleton [Woolen Mills] blankets. We’re going to have jackets that will be sanitized in between each use for guests out there. And we’ll only be doing one party per evening per yurt.

“You will need to meet the food and beverage minimum, which is $500 during the weekday and $800 on the weekends. And again, I know not every restaurant could charge that, but we are in a resort community where the demand that we’ve seen even already, I mean, these things are booked for, you know, several nights already this winter.”

On how Aurum’s waitstaff will stay warm

Armstrong: “So we have an outdoor fireplace which these yurts will be sort of stationed around. And then we’ve also outfitted all of our staff with new uniforms for just that service. So they will have branded jackets, hats, gloves.”

“We’re going to have lights or lanterns on the exteriors so that we’re not constantly bothering the guest and opening to the cold air. So when they need service, they’ll flip the switch, the light will go on, which will indicate to our service staff that they need something. But although this is, you know, specifically responding to COVID, we believe that this is just a unique dining experience, period.”

On stand-out suggestions submitted to Chicago’s Winter Dining Challenge

Catherine Corbin: “Repurposing vehicles, for example, taking school busses that are decommissioned and reconfiguring them to hold diners. There were some ideas around taking places like our convention center at McCormick Place and saying well, perhaps if we aren’t holding large conventions instead, each restaurant or a handful of restaurants in Chicago could claim some small corner of that convention space and use the onsite kitchens to create their food there and serve it there. It may, in fact, bring too many people together and would create an unsafe condition for dining. So there’s always been a very strong attention to public safety matched with, how do we keep our businesses open?”


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.