Hit by COVID-19, Restaurants Bundle Up as Winter Looms

as temperature drops, so will outdoor dining options

Rebecca Mennecke, photos by Andrea Paulseth

MASK TASK. Restaurants, like Loopy’s in Chippewa Falls, have had to adapt quickly to the pandemic.
MASK TASK. Restaurants, like Loopy’s Grill & Saloon in Chippewa Falls, have had to adapt quickly to the pandemic. Not all have been able to survive: A sister establishment, Loopy's High Shores Supper Club, will close Oct. 24.

In the restaurant business, every day brings new challenges. Over the past few months, restaurants have had to pivot to use new sanitizing protocols, follow social distancing guidelines, navigate unanticipated closures – and tolerate an increasingly disgruntled clientele, according to local restaurant owners.

Though outdoor dining options have improved restaurateurs’ abilities to make revenue amid pandemic times, the impending winter months make them more than a little uneasy.

“My motto was ‘if one goes down, we all go down,’ ” said Lisa Aspenson, owner of Mona Lisa’s, Mogie’s, The Livery, and Stella Blues. “It’s hard in the service industry to build walls around yourself.”

Since March, Aspenson said, she has experienced revenue losses ranging from 30% to 76% compared with the previous year. And her businesses are not alone. According to a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association, sales are down in restaurants across the country by 34%. Nearly one in six restaurants is closed for the long-term or permanently, with nearly 3 million employees still out of work. By the end of this year, the restaurant industry is expected to lose $240 billion.

Faced with losses and the upcoming cold months, local business owners are scrambling to find solutions. For example, Milwaukee Burger Company recently submitted a proposal to the Eau Claire City Council requesting permission to use a 20-by-40-foot heated outdoor tent, with room for 75 people to safely social distance. The proposal was approved, allowing the restaurant to use outdoor options from Oct. 8 through March 31. This opens the door for other local restaurants (with space capabilities) to seek similar options.

My motto was ‘if one goes down, we all go down.’ It’s hard in the service industry to build walls around yourself.


EAU CLAIRE restaurateur

According to Kent Buell, the Food and Beverage Director of Pablo Group – which oversees local establishments such as The Informalist, The Fire House, Racy D’Lenes Coffee House, The Nucleus, ECDC, The Dive, and Skill Shot – the pandemic ripped the Band-Aid off a food system that hasn’t been working for a while: Buell says supporting local not only creates tighter relationships with the community, but it eliminates food waste and food insecurity – something local restaurant owners are thinking more about as winter looms. “Rather than pay for waste,” he said, “I pay for care.”

Rita Dorsey, general manager of The Lismore, said she has considered curbside, to-go, and pickup options – even looking at options such as EatStreet or Grubhub. But, the cost of third-party delivery services make it a challenge for local business owners to break even. And with Wisconsin laws prohibiting alcohol delivery, much of The Lismore’s delivery options are limited. Dorsey recently launched online ordering options with pick-up abilities, which helps their revenue. But during winter months, Dorsey fears people may not be willing to make the chilly drive to pick up local eats. Most important to Dorsey – like many restaurant managers – is keeping her team safe. “I know we are operating in the safest way possible,” she said.

To help support local restaurants through the winter months, Aspenson recommends purchasing take-out options, considering gift packs or catering options, and buying gift cards for the holiday season. And – as with most service industries – being extra patient.

Dorsey said it frustrates and saddens her when local folks come in and berate employees who often make minimum wage. “Are we not struggling enough?” she said.