APPLETON, Wis. — Jeff Drake headed out one recent cold, drizzly day bundled up in a heavy coat with a stadium blanket under his arm.
The Appleton resident and his wife, Kathi, weren't preparing to go to a Green Bay Packers game — we all know that's not a thing right now — or to have an al fresco lunch at a Brule ski slope restaurant.
No, they were staying in Appleton, on their way to eat at Meade Street Bistro's outdoor patio. They are among a limited number of hearty souls still willing to brave the elements to eat outside at their favorite restaurants.
Drake, like many state residents, isn't comfortable eating inside a restaurant during a record-setting spike in coronavirus cases, and hopes his favorite places will be able to keep outdoor dining fun and tolerable for as long as possible.
"We want to go out to dinner, but we live in one of the world's hottest COVID areas and the virus spreads through the air, especially inside. We are not eating inside a restaurant in the near future," Jeff Drake said.
Restaurants across the state are looking for ways to keep customers coming back through the cold season, deploying dining domes and scores of outdoor heaters in the hopes of keeping outdoor diners happy and warm, and making adjustments inside to boost diners' confidence in the safety of eating inside the restaurant.
Outdoor dining buoyed restaurants in summer and early fall, as customers flocked to patios and other spaces that offered safer places to dine. As winter sets in, keeping them coming back is a make-or-break prospect for many restaurant owners, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.
If business decreases, Wisconsin restaurant owners fear a bitter winter lies ahead, one that could be marked by widespread closures and layoffs. And many worry that what little they can do to encourage diners won't be enough to keep them going without a new round of stimulus funding, consistent rules for being open and an improved commitment among state residents to playing their role in controlling the pandemic.
"The idea is to ... stay as nimble as you can because you could wake up the next morning and have a completely different business plan than the day before," said Bill Tressler, co-owner of Hinterland Brewing in Green Bay. "There's no part of the business plan that included operating within a pandemic. (Profit) margins are out the window. It's can we survive this?"
Kristine Hillmer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said a quick survey of restaurateurs after Gov. Tony Evers restricted capacity to 25% last month revealed half feared they would have to close. That was up from 37% who said in August that they could not survive six months without more stimulus funds.
Many eatery owners said a restriction to 25% of indoor capacity, a rule that is now on hold as it is reviewed by a state appeals court, would not allow them to generate enough sales to survive.
"There's really not an end in sight," Hillmer said. "The ripple effect of all of this is immense when you think of the owner's family and the staff's families and the suppliers and the farmers growing the food. We have to figure out a way to balance all of this."
Hillmer said everyone has to play a role. Consumers will have to actively help their favorite, local restaurants survive the winter. Restaurants have to build consumer confidence that it is safe to eat inside and, once again, get creative.
"Restaurant owners are doing the best they can," Hillmer said. "They know how to serve food safely. But that confidence in eating out is the biggest challenge we're going to have."
Lastly, she said governments have to set consistent rules and provide more funding for an industry the National Restaurant Association estimates has lost $162 billion in sales since March. James Greve, owner of the Wisconsin Rapids-area restaurant Kellner International Bar & Grill, said the policy conversations need to involve restaurant owners, too.
"We're on the frontlines and we see what's happening," Greve said. "Even in hard times like these, the power of working together can be a great asset to the state and country."
The owners of Kellner International Bar in Wisconsin Rapids have bar hung shower curtains between tables as a way to allow customers to dine-in more safely.
Perhaps predictably, the dining dome or igloo trend that arrived in northeastern Wisconsin last winter will be even more popular this year. The clear vinyl domes seat up to 10 people and can withstand rain and snow. The demand from restaurants for the product is so high Tressler is not sure when Hinterland's will arrive.
Fox River Brewing Co.'s three "River Domes" at its Oshkosh location can be reserved for 90 minutes at a time, after which the staff spends 30 minutes sanitizing them before the next customers can use them, owner Jay Supple said. He said Fox River Brewing's Appleton location should have domes available to reserve by Nov. 1.
For those without domes, though, the first weeks of winter weather will be a tense time, waiting to see if customers want to keep eating outside around fire pits or with piping hot drinks, as well as if they're comfortable coming in from the cold.
On the day the Drakes went to Meade Street Bistro, there were no other outside diners.
"A couple people asked about how well the heaters were working, but nobody joined us outside," Drake said. "With the heaters going full blast, it was OK, much better than eating takeout at home."
At Pullmans Restaurant, along the Fox River in Appleton, co-owner Trevor Reader said it will be a sad day when the restaurant's patio closes. Now, Reader said, Pullmans is focused on its indoor dining room and weathering the pandemic.
"Now we're trying to figure out how to take care of indoor diners with distancing properly and all the precautions with our staff. We also doing a lot of delivery, pickup and curbside," he said. "We're apprehensive, like everyone else. it's a tough go."
To encourage inside dining Greve has erected clear shower curtains inside Kellner International as barriers between tables and an ozone machine to sanitize the building's air every night.
At Becket's Restaurant in downtown Oshkosh, the owners installed ultraviolet and hydrogen peroxide filtration systems in the restaurant's air handling system to reduce the chances of diners transmitting the virus.
"It purifies the air and spits out some hydrogen peroxide to sanitize the air and surfaces," co-owner Kris Larson said. "We think it's the best option available."
Restaurant owners and industry officials are looking to their home communities to help the businesses survive the long winter, whether it's through onsite dining, delivery or curbside pickup.
The remaining part of the open outdoor dining area sits empty at Pullmans At Trolley Square in Appleton.
Jill Bassett, owner of Plae Bistro, called the Green Bay-area restaurant's patio "our saving grace" for the summer. Plae welcomes indoor diners, too, but Bassett has restricted reservations to a maximum of 10, and those parties will likely be seated at multiple tables. She said it's all part of an effort to make everyone feel safe while eating inside.
"I don't want to get sick. I don't want my staff to get sick. I don't want my customers to get sick," Bassett said. "We're hoping if they don't feel comfortable coming in that they'll at least do takeout or buy a gift card. Every small business out there needs all the help they can get."
Here's a look at the key things consumers can do to help restaurants improve their bottom line as winter approaches.
Individual restaurants have had to shut down for isolated periods when an employee or customer tests positive for COVID-19, a disruption that restaurateurs across the state seek to avoid with safety measures and aggressive sanitation.
But safety measures mean nothing if consumers do not aggressively wash their hands, maintain physical distancing, stay home when they feel sick and wear a mask when they're not eating or drinking.
"Please follow (the guidelines)," Hillmer pleaded. "When someone purposely chooses to fight them or not follow them, it is just not helpful."
Apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash and EatStreet offer to place and deliver your order to your doorstep, expanding the options for people staying home.
You might not realize those apps take 10-30% of your bill, though, making it even more difficult for struggling restaurants to cover operating costs. Hillmer said it's best to call the restaurant and ask if they partner with a specific service or, more likely, prefer curbside pickup orders.
"We want the restaurant to be in the driver's seat," Hillmer said.
Supple, whose Supple Restaurant Group operates four restaurants in Oshkosh and Appleton, said curbside pickup is definitely preferred.
"There's no money made on third-party deliveries," Supple said. "Curbside is where it's at. If there's one thing that could really help, it would be placing a curbside (pickup) or carryout order."
Shower curtains separate tables in the dining area of Kellner International Bar in Wisconsin Rapids. The bar hung the curtains as a way to allow customers to dine-in more safely.
It's understandable that not everyone will feel comfortable sitting down inside a restaurant, especially at a time when the state is reporting record numbers of new cases and deaths from COVID.
That doesn't mean you have to go without a your favorite Friday fish fry or skip the pizza part entirely. Hillmer said restaurants across the state have taken the opportunity to try new things.
"Restaurateurs are entrepreneurs at heart," she said. "They're being creative."
Some restaurants have embraced meal kits, ready to cook do-it-yourself versions of popular restaurant meals. Some chefs, like Kou Lee, owner of Koreana Restaurant in Appleton, have even taken it a step further and offered virtual cooking classes to help steer customers through meal prep. Restaurants have also partnered with local craft breweries, wineries, bakeries, grocery stores and other local businesses to both increase exposure and sales for all businesses involved.
Hillmer said one thing the association plans to advocate for beyond the pandemic is approval to include alcoholic beverages with carryout meals. Imagine, she said for example, the interest in Old-Fashioned kits, not to mention the help it would provide restaurants where drinks are often higher-margin products.
"Much like the growler (at craft breweries), there is space for — and over 30 states currently allow — cocktails to go," she said. "If I'm going to order a pizza, I'd love to order a six-pack ... We would love to see that flexibility all the time. It really gives the restaurateur all the tools to be successful."
While those innovations will help, it's unlikely they'll be enough to overcome the reduced traffic due to the coronavirus and efforts taken to control it.
"You just can't make it on 25% occupancy," Hillmer said. "We all know how severe this is."
Jeremy "Jay" Quasius opened the 1950s-themed Deklan's in Manitowoc this summer after bookings for his popular food truck, Seoul, cratered this summer. He purposefully set up Deklan's so customers didn't have to get out of their car to eat, hiring carhops to serve them at their cars. Additionally, Quasius offers curbside pickup and delivery to supplement onsite dining sales.
"It's been really, really hard," Quasius said. "I think we can make it through the winter to spring, but beyond that, who knows?"