Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants in Montgomery County are having a hard time making ends meet. They will soon face a new challenge — convincing customers to eat outside when it’s 40 degrees.
Since June, restaurants in the county have been able to open for outdoor dining and at 50% for indoor dining, provided that social distancing measures are observed. For some restaurants, outdoor seating has been a more popular option.
“It seems to me like nobody wants to eat inside. That’s the bottom line,” said Francesco Ricchi, owner of the Italian restaurant Cesco Osteria in downtown Bethesda.
Ricchi said that on a given night, about 80% of his customers eat outside, where there are enough tables to seat between 60 and 70, he said.
Cesco Osteria had 11 gas heaters, but they were destroyed during a storm over the summer due to the high wind. He’s thinking about buying more heaters this month, but isn’t sure.
Business, he said, has fallen about 70% since the beginning of the pandemic.
“If I want to stay open, I have to manage the little money I have in my hands. So to go out there and spend another $1,000. I need to think twice,” he said.
Ricchi said he has been helped in part by the federal Paycheck Protection Program and has applied for money from Montgomery County’s Reopen Montgomery Grant Program, which gives up to $5,000 to businesses and nonprofits.
As of Oct. 2, the county funded 61 businesses, another 86 had been marked “approved” but hadn’t been funded and 294 applications had yet to be processed, according to Jerome Fletcher, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer for economic development.
The county’s Department of Permitting Services is planning to hold an online forum for restaurant owners on Thursday. Owners can ask questions about what steps in the permitting process are necessary to make changes to outdoor seating to prepare for winter.
DPS Community Outreach Manager Jessica Fusillo said last week that some restaurants want to construct tents or put in heaters, and have questions about the safest way to do so.
“Everyone is talking about it, because it’s getting colder and what do you do … for outdoor café seating? For outdoor dining, we find that small businesses are asking a lot of questions,” she said.
As of Thursday, about 10 to 15 business owners had contacted DPS with questions about outdoor dining, Fusillo said.
Jeff Owens, the chief financial officer at Clyde’s Restaurant Group, said last week that Clyde’s Tower Oaks Lodge in Rockville has put in tents with heaters to accommodate guests during the cold.
Owens said he wishes Montgomery County officials would let restaurants erect physical barriers between booths as an alternative to the rule that all seats must be six feet apart. He said adhering to the six-foot rule further complicates their ability to do business because it is an additional mandate on top of the 50% capacity limit.
“We’re really only getting 30 to 35% of our normal seating,” he said.
Richard Kaufman, the general manager of Summer House Santa Monica in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Thursday that the restaurant is considering dome-shaped covered seating on one side of the building and a tent covering tables on the front patio.
“None of this has been officially decided yet, but I hope that we are able to move things forward soon,” he wrote.
Marcel The, the co-owner of Raku in downtown Bethesda, wrote in an email last week that he is concerned about how much outdoor business his restaurant will get during December, January and February. During those months, he wrote, the restaurant will focus “a lot” on takeout and delivery.
“In some ways, though still very concerned, at least for me, I feel more mentally competent to face [the] winter months. I mean if I survived March [and] April (first few months of the pandemic), I should be able to get through this winter. I have some level of confidence that Spring 2021 will be better. So I’ll keep my head down and get through this winter, and we will all be okay,” he wrote.
Federal Realty Investment Trust, a real estate firm that operates commercial properties throughout Montgomery County, has been working to help its businesses in preparation for the coolers months, spokeswoman Jill McCarthy wrote in an email last week. Some restaurants are adding heaters and extending their patios, she wrote, and others have encouraged customers to bring their own blankets.
“We’ve also continued our partnership with local municipalities to keep the roads closed to vehicular traffic in Bethesda (Woodmont Ave) and Rockville (Gibbs St), and provided custom furniture by Syzygy, to add more seating…,” she wrote.
Downtown Bethesda’s “Streetery” — in which select streets are closed to expand outdoor general seating — will continue for the time being, Bethesda Urban Partnership spokeswoman Stephanie Coppula told Bethesda Beat this month.
“We’re kind of checking the weather week by week,” she said.
“We are assessing things on a week-by-week basis. Our goal right now is to get through October and hopefully part of November and see how things are from there. I agree that an outdoor heater doesn’t really warm if it’s below 32 degrees outside or below 40 degrees,” she said.
Coppula said BUP is purchasing heaters powered by propane tanks and plans to add them to the Streetery by the end of the month.
She added that many restaurants with outdoor patios in Bethesda already have added heaters.
“I think a lot of folks are already doing that. Some restaurants already have an indoor-outdoor concept where they can dine inside with the windows open. So I think each restaurant’s probably handling things a little bit differently,” she said.
Ricchi said that although he will do what he can to ensure his restaurant survives the winter, he still feels uncertain.
“Facing the cold, where do we go from here? It’s not easy. And that’s certainly the future. It doesn’t look good. But there is nothing we can do about it,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com