- Outdoor heaters are seeing a massive uptick in sales and usage as restaurants prepare to remain open in the fall.
- While heaters help outdoor facilities maintain physical distancing in cooler weather, restaurants should be cautious of people gathering and socializing close to the heat sources.
- While they wait for government approval, restaurants are buying or renting cost-effective, energy efficient models that can withstand colder temperatures.
- Experts predict American dining "will finally catch up to the rest of the world, including Europe," and the shift to more outdoor dining may shape new zoning laws and regulations.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
With fall here and colder weather setting in, the hottest commodity on the market these days for restaurant owners is turning out to be, of all things, the outdoor heater.
In 2020, Amazon alone sold and shipped 70% more outdoor heaters between the months of April and June compared to the same time last year, an Amazon spokesperson told Business Insider.
While commercial outdoor heaters have existed for years and a host of restaurants were already using them regularly, the pandemic has resulted in a major uptick in both sales and usage of the appliance as restaurants scramble to extend their outdoor dining service in an attempt to remain open and generate much-needed revenue.
Since the country's lockdown in March, government regulations have drastically affected restaurants. Indoor dining was brought to a screeching halt all around the US for months, and now states are issuing limited capacity clauses to allow businesses to reopen, such as in New York, which recently announced 25% capacity restrictions in accordance with social distancing regulations. The city last week announced that it was making outdoor dining permanent, continuing the initiatives, which were supposed to end October 31, indefinitely.
During the spring and summer, a host of establishments offered outdoor dining options to keep money coming in, but as the chill in the air becomes more prevalent, outdoor heaters are being viewed as a safe way to extend the outdoor service season when indoor dining may not be possible come winter.
The risks associated with outdoor heaters in transmitting COVID-19
Dr. John O'Horo, an infectious disease specialist in the Mayo Clinic Health System, told Business Insider that heaters don't have a direct impact on COVID-19 transmission in an outdoor setting.
"However, they do present both a risk and an opportunity for physical distancing," he said. "Using these to increase the space restaurants and other outdoor facilities use in cooler weather should help with spacing and keeping the six-foot spacing."
That said, if people cluster around heaters more closely to stay warm, it negates that advantage and could present an increased risk, he warned. "Overall, outdoor heating is less about what these devices can do and more about how they are used to support physical distancing," O'Horo said.
Thus it's in the hands of restaurant owners and their staff to ensure they aren't met with lukewarm reception from people looking to congregate and socialize and continue to strongly enforce social distancing.
Restaurant owners in major cities are snatching up heaters in an effort to stay open longer
While 19 of 58 counties in California have received the green light to reopen indoor dining, many of the major restaurant markets such as Los Angeles are not permitted by government ordinance. Earlier this summer, Ivan Vasquez, the owner of Madre, an LA eatery known for its Mezcal and Oaxacan food, offered delivery and to-go services as well as outdoor dining. Vasquez had already been using heat lamps in his two original locations in Palms and Torrance, and told Business Insider that he's buying more for his new location in West Hollywood in an effort to attract diners once the temperature goes down.
Vasquez bought the Crown Verity CV2650-SS Stainless Steel Portable Propane Outdoor Patio Heater, a model which has 45,000 BTU (standing for "British thermal unit," a way to measure energy) and costs $550.
"I did a lot of research to decide which style and brand would fit our needs," Vasquez said. "I chose these because they are commercial grade, heavy-duty, and high BTU performance. They also have great reviews."
A quick check by Business Insider revealed this model was experiencing increased demand resulting in extended lead times on delivery.
"Electric heating was more advantageous for us, as propane heaters are large, dangerous, and could damage the covering of the pergola," said Chris Cannon, owner of Jockey Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Morristown, New Jersey, which can accommodate 75 diners in its outdoor pergola. "I opted for two kinds of Biogreen greenhouse heaters, the Phoenix and the Palma. Both are made in Germany, are waterproof, and provide what I believe will be enough heat to keep the enclosure comfortable, safely." He added that models ranged from $120 to $277 and were readily available when he purchased them at the end of July.
Ron Silver, owner of Bubby's, a New York comfort food staple since 1990, has recently only been open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor service. As New York moves to allow restaurants to open at 25% capacity on September 30, Silver said he believes they'll be able to serve customers outdoors through the winter except for days that are "inclement."
"And purchasing outdoor heaters is a large way to make this possible," he said. "We hope the heaters will encourage our customers to keep dining at Bubby's long after it gets cold."
After much research, Silver bought the 32,000 BTU Infrared Cabinet Heater because it was cost effective ($191), easy to move around, and used the same amount of heat as some of the taller patio heaters while using less fuel. He had no trouble getting them a month ago, however, they're currently out of stock. He said that he's starting with five heaters and plans to evaluate accordingly.
Fellow New York restauranteur, Jake Poznak, co-owner and managing partner of Moonrise Izakaya, told Business Insider that a month ago he bought five Hampton Bay heat lamps, three of which are electric and cost $500 each and two propane ones at $120 each.
Though Poznak said propane is not allowed in New York, they were available so he snapped them up for ancillary locations in the suburbs.
Prior to COVID-19, Washington, DC's Espita had 150 seats. Now they're limited to serving 40 for indoor dining and 36 seats in the covered patio.
"Normally we enclose the patio with a plastic curtain wall and operate year round," said Josh Phillips, general manager and co-owner. "Now adding that enclosure would make it an indoor space, so that's no longer an option."
The patio already housed seven 4,000 watt electric wall-mounted heaters along the length of it, but they recently bought five 48,000 BTU standing propane heaters ($600 each) to place between tables. Phillips pointed out that propane tanks for a full day of operations cost about $160 a day.
After buying dozens of outdoor heaters over the years, Terry Alexander of Chicago's Big Star said it's worth the investment to buy a higher priced model to not only keep guests comfortable but also to ensure it won't break after one season. For the past couple of years, his restaurant has relied on the Sunglo Stainless Steel Propane Gas Patio Heater — $1,788 and currently a special order.
"During a normal year, we go from a 350+ person restaurant in the summer to a 120-seat, indoor-only taqueria, so we are desperately trying to stretch the Chicago patio season as long as we can," Alexander said. "This isn't a normal year, so elongating outdoor seating is even more vital, so we'll continue for as long as we possibly can, and once the weather gets colder and the Mayor decides on the indoor occupancy safety protocol, we'll start seating indoors as well," he added.
Outdoor dining reshapes an industry and city regulations
"We're seeing a 70 to 75% uptick in outdoor heater demands compared to last year," said Dan Munger, director of sales and business development at DMC Facility Services, a general contracting business serving from Maine to Virginia.
According to Munger, most of the large-scale restaurants he works with are opting to rent heaters rather than buy them with the hope that COVID-19 cases won't spike and require them to invest more substantially in a more permanent solution. Munger estimated renting a small portable heater runs $100 a week, while an umbrella heater costs between $1,500 and $1,800 per week.
"The big chain restaurants are good at getting ahead of things and looking toward the future, so they began procuring heaters over a month ago when it was still 70 to 80 degrees outside," Munger said. "It's the hometown, mom and pop restaurant businesses that are the ones who will be looking at supply issues if they're only beginning to look for heaters now."
"As a general contractor, we tell all our clients the most important factor is procuring units that follow the proper municipal codes for your local jurisdiction," Munger added, citing propane umbrellas as the most commonly rented models in places like NJ, where propane is permitted.
"As far as heater speculation, I have a feeling heater company stocks will double much in the way that Zoom did and supply will be tight," said Seth Larsen, chief relationship officer at Cheba Hut, a cannabis-themed sandwich franchise with over 30 franchises in the US that's currently looking for heaters with a small footprint that they can add multiples of.
Sara Bronin, a UConn Law professor and expert on urban planning law, said we should be looking further ahead into the future than just the short-term solution of outdoor dining during the pandemic.
"This trend of American restaurants expanding outdoor dining means that American cities will finally catch up to the rest of the world, including Europe, which has embraced multi-season outdoor dining," she said. "Not only will restaurants be more profitable and safer, but I predict diners will really enjoy the experience."
She added that restrictions on outdoor dining have already been lifted in some places, such as in Connecticut, under emergency executive orders.
"That's needed because many, if not most, zoning laws prohibit tables from occupying the sidewalk or parking spaces, but that's where restaurateurs are putting tables during COVID," she said. "Looking ahead, we'll have to be sure to change zoning laws to legalize outdoor dining even beyond the pandemic."
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