Greenhouses to futuristic kiosks, metro region restaurants adapting to serve through winter and a pandemic

On a recent warm afternoon Nelson Harvey was putting the finishing touches on a cluster of miniature greenhouses near the patio outside of Annette, the award-winning eatery at Stanley Marketplace in north Aurora.

“What are all of these?” a woman, sporting a mini skirt and a Gucci bag on the final balmy days of summer, stopped to ask Harvey, who co-owns Annette. His wife Caroline Glover is the chef and mastermind behind the whole operation.

Harvey explained that the greenhouses, about six-foot by eight-foot, are Annette’s solution for winter dining during the COVID-19 pandemic. To curb spreading the virus, state health officials have limited indoor seating capacity, which was manageable during patio season, but now as Colorado quickly approaches colder weather restaurateurs fear for the worst.

Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, predicts it’ll be a difficult season for restaurants. On top of the existing revenue gut punch, adapting an outdoor space for the winter is expensive.

“In August, more than 60% of restaurants told us they would take advantage of a winter outdoor expansion program if it was available. For some restaurants, extending patio expansion programs would be a lifeline, as it will allow them to add seats and invest in creative solutions for continuing patio dining through the cold months,” she said. “Those investments will be significant — restaurants say they will have to spend $5,500 on average to outfit their patios for the winter — in a time when restaurants are strapped for cash. So we continue to push for financial assistance at all levels of government to help operators deal with costs.”

Predicting a creative streak among Colorado’s restaurant industry, state health officials issued guidelines for restaurants that may fashion temporary outdoor structures last month.

“Depending on the erection or construction of these spaces, and the available ventilation, they will be considered an indoor or outdoor setting and must follow the appropriate capacity requirements,” the state health department explained in the guidance.

An outdoor structure is anything with three or more walls — which the agency defines as “any material type that can reasonably restrict aerosols from passing through” — and a ceiling is considered indoor. An umbrella, canopy, igloo or greenhouse (with the right ventilation) is outdoor.

Capacities vary depending on the structure and what level of reopening a county happens to be at. A higher risk level means less capacity.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what comes next during this pandemic. Harvey said it seems the next six months will be harder than the last six months.

“We do a lot more take out than we used to, but even with all of that we know it’ll be much more difficult to make ends meet through the winter,” Harvey said, noting that the restaurant’s revenue is down about 40% compared to regular times. “We had a decent summer, but with the weather turning cold that’s going away.”

The idea to build the 12 greenhouses, which will seat either a table for two or four people, came from a trip the duo took to Amsterdam last summer. They saw a cafe do it there and figured it’d be feasible with their own space.

The dining pods get warm, Harvey said, and they feature a roof vent and sliding doors. Staff will air out the greenhouses between each set of guests and use a backpack sprayer to sanitize. A reservation system will also be in place to allow adequate cleaning.

A group of dedicated patrons helped build the pods on a recent Sunday. They were paid in food.

I’m just hoping and praying they can get through the next month and maybe November. It’s very uncertain what business will look like in December, unfortunately. — Chance Horiuchi, executive director of the Havana Business Improvement District

Annette is fortunate to have the space to get creative with the greenhouses and that Stanley Marketplace has been so supportive of the endeavour, Harvey said. Later this fall, Annette is partnering with the Colorado Yurt Company to put a bigger outdoor space on the back lawn. It’ll act as a showroom for the yurt company and allow the restaurant a bigger space for guests.

Elsewhere in Aurora and across the metroplex restaurant owners say they either lack capital or physical space to expand, making the upcoming season the hardest one yet.

On Aurora’s strip of Havana Street to the south, businesses are also steeling for more hard times ahead.

“I’m just hoping and praying they can get through the next month and maybe November,” said Chance Horiuchi, executive director of the Havana Business Improvement District. “It’s very uncertain what business will look like in December, unfortunately.”

Horiuchi said only a handful of Havana’s some 100 restaurants expanded their seating to outdoor parking lots in recent months, primarily because the majority are relegated to plazas and shoppettes set back from the state highway.

Aurora had 39 businesses with temporary outdoor extensions as part of the Aurora Ramps Up program, according to Trevor Vaugn, manager of the city’s tax and licensing division. The city extended the program through the end of October and will re-evaluate then.

Horiuchi said she was unsure whether more restaurateurs would pursue additional covered outdoor seating this winter, though she’s optimistic local diners will continue to rely on Havana haunts for regular catering or large holiday meals.

Outside of heated outdoor eating spaces, Horiuchi said several restaurateurs have opted to bolster technology inside their stores to streamline the ordering process and reduce contact with the public. She said the popular Korean dessert spot Snowl, typically packed even on weeknights before the pandemic, has recently added digital ordering kiosks like those at large fast-food joints such as McDonalds.

Still, despite the addition of new technology, joint marketing efforts among neighboring restaurants and renegotiated lease payments among tenants and landlords,

Horiuchi said most of the corridor’s eateries are on life support.

“In March they were looking six months out or a year out, now businesses are looking a day, or a week or a month ahead,” she said. “It’s a very different climate than when the shutdowns occurred … Everyone is in survival mode and just doing the best they can to support each other.”

Riggs with the Colorado Restaurant Association advised patrons to be flexible with supporting their favorite eateries.

“Prime times may be hard to come by given capacity restrictions and being patient and tipping well never hurts, either,” she said.