Though it is now lifted, the most recent Executive Order had prohibited any restaurants from allowing indoor dining. In order to stay afloat, restaurants were forced to turn to their only other option: the great outdoors.
With no thanks to West Michigan’s icy, frigid winters, outdoor eating has remained a nearly impossible feat — until now.
Spreading like wildfire across Grand Rapids, Allendale and all of Michigan, igloos, like the ones recently installed on Grand Valley State University’s campus, have allowed restaurants to stay up and running despite COVID-19 restrictions.
One of the first businesses to discover the glory of the heated igloo has been Outside Coffee Co. in Grand Rapids. As their business takes place solely outdoors, they began using these outdoor domes three years ago to keep their customers nice and warm while enjoying their coffee.
Shahad Alzaidan, the Community Manager of Woosah Outfitters and Outside Coffee Co., said they were presented with the idea when a customer mentioned the geodomes to the owner, Erica Lang.
“We did some research and the rest is history,” Alzaidan said. “It’s been wild to see them popping up all over the place now due to COVID-19 restrictions. But, for us, our story is a little different as it was something we did for the nature of our business being an outdoor coffee shop.”
While they may have been two steps ahead, other restaurants have been quick to follow.
David Kortman, the Fronthouse Manager of Main St. Pub in Allendale, said they had ordered the domes and space heaters for them before they even knew the restaurant was required to shut down for a second time because they noticed how much of a trend it had become — and it paid off.
“The igloos really kept our business at a much higher level than we expected for COVID,” Kortman said. “There was zero indoor or outdoor dining the first time we shut down. So, it helped quite a bit.”
For Royals Café in Grand Rapids, outdoor eating is all they have ever known.
Stephanie Weesies, General Manager of Royals Cafe, said they had spent the fall and winter of 2019 designing their space and making plans for their brand new restaurant. After some setbacks, they were able to open their doors to the public on March 16, 2020.
The café was open for all of three hours before the first Executive Stay at Home Order was put into place. This led them to have to adapt in any way possible to get up and running and last through the winter.
“We started looking ahead towards what this winter might look like way back in the middle of summer,” Weesies said. “There was some back and forth on the idea but ultimately the trigger was pulled in early fall and we were able to get (the igloos) up and running in the middle of November.”
Weesies said the igloos have attributed greatly to their success, and the atmosphere they create has been just what the café needs.
“For us, it was a pretty big game changer,” Weesies said. “Our menu is brunch focused and I think there is a certain type of experience expected for brunch. Pancakes and waffles really shine when they are fresh and hot right off the griddle. It’s just a fun experience to sit in a little snow globe with your loved ones and kick back with some really good food and enjoy a few adult beverages as well.”
As the igloos have been so successful for restaurants across the board, it seems as if they are now a vital component in the future of winter dining.
“Even though we have now continued indoor dining, our igloos are still booked up every weekend,” Kortman said. “At 25 percent capacity indoors more people can be seated outdoors this way. Even when we’re not busy or at capacity people are still reserving igloos because they like aesthetic, the vibe, and their unique feel.”
Kortman said although he hopes there won’t be any COVID-19 restrictions next winter, the igloos will surely make another appearance.
“I was definitely surprised at how many people wanted to sit outside just because they could,” Kortman said. “There’s a large part of society that thinks it’s a really cool option. We’re going to put them back up every winter for the foreseeable future.”
Weesies said she is excited about the new ways restaurants have been able to adapt and all of the new possibilities that outdoor dining like this offers.
“A year ago, we wouldn’t even consider sitting outside unless it was 60 degrees,” Weesies said. “Now, we have a full patio on a sunny 30 degree day. It might not be for everyone as we move hopefully toward a more normal dining experience. But, I think there will always be a niche for out-of-the-box dining.”