How Restaurants Can Serve Dinner Outside During Winter
Chicago Chooses Three Design Contest Winners That Will See Prototypes Built and Tested
Children’s blocks were used as the basis for outdoor dining modules picked as a winner of Chicago’s Winter Design Challenge. (Neil Reindel, Flo Mettetal)
By Jennifer Waters
Dining in your own personal cabin may sound cozy, but will it be charming if sleet is raging when your server opens the door?
The idea could get tested soon if a winning submission to Chicago’s first Winter Design Challenge is put into action. The contest was initiated as a problem-solver for restaurants to adapt their commercial properties to serve patrons and follow COVID-19 capacity restrictions as brisk, sometimes frigid temperatures make their way toward northern U.S. cities.
Temporary restaurant closings caused by the pandemic have hit the restaurant industry particularly hard, and cities are adapting measures to help keep eateries in business. New York City is permanently allowing restaurants to offer outdoor dining year-round with heaters and enclosed tents.
The Chicago contest is part of the expanded outdoor dining program the city initiated to help restaurants increase outdoor seating options this summer in ways other restaurants across the United States have also done: adapting parking lots, sidewalks and closed streets. Some 400 area restaurants have participated.
The city reached out to innovators across the world to “reimagine the winter outdoor dining experience in Chicago,” according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office. Answering the call were 643 submissions that ranged from repurposing old Chicago Transit Authority buses and trains into dining cars, to assembling structures such as tents, geodesic domes and igloos.
Shipping container reuse was also a popular suggestion, following the trends to put them to work as pop-up retail sites and even small homes. However, no one suggested where to place the unwieldy containers in conjunction to restaurants already in business.
Office cubicles made the list, considering so many of them are out of use right now as people work from home, and one submission offered up car hops as an option. Technology was well represented too, mostly with heating and venting solutions — many of them costly. Heated blankets were recommended in many different forms.
Three submissions emerged as winners after two preliminary rounds of reviews by panelists that included IDEO, the design firm, the Illinois Restaurant Association and BMO Harris, as well as a handful of city chefs, architects, designers and a few servers. Contestants got points for feasibility, innovation, cost efficiency, safety adherence and functionality of the idea.
The winners, who were each awarded $5,000, were three ideas the city said “not only capture the spirit of Chicago but can provide feasible and safe options for Chicagoans to enjoy dining out as temperatures drop.”
These are small modular, adjoining cabins with radiant floor heating and vents near the ceiling for circulation. As many as three will fit within the footprint of a standard parking space but can be adjusted for parties greater than two. It was submitted by Atlanta-based ASD/SKY, a design services company.
Urban design and planners Neil Reindel and Flo Mettetal looked to children’s blocks and Legos as the basis for seating modules using curtains to contain heat. Modules are spaced 8 feet to 10 feet apart and organized to create one-way staff and server circulation patterns around them to allow for limited crossing and interaction.
This is a modified version of ancient kotatsus, the traditional Japanese tea tables that are heated underneath and attached with blankets. Ellie Henderson drew a simple sketch based on her experience while living in Japan, noting they are typically used indoors but can be easily modified for outdoor use. She wasn’t the only one to suggest the heated-blanket-over-the-table proposal, but the others were not as detailed.
The next step is for the Illinois Restaurant Association to begin selecting local construction firms to bring the ideas to life through design development and technical refinement. BMO Harris is funding the builds. Prototypes then will be tested in neighborhood restaurants chosen by the association.
The city also announced DoorDash, the online delivery company, is offering $500,000 in grants to help individual restaurants defray winterization costs. Restaurant owners with three or fewer locations in the city limits and 50 employees or fewer can apply for $5,000 grants.