GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The weather is getting cooler, but the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of slowing down yet.
Many restaurants have relied on outdoor dining and social zones this year to keep their business alive. Now, as the temperature drops, restaurants and bars are finding creative ways to keep customers warm and their business thriving.
Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. was approved to create a grant program Wednesday night by the Downtown Development Authority Board; $200,000 is available for the grants, to be used to winterize outdoor dining.
"The grant is for the winterization of these social zones for restaurants and bars," said Mark Miller, DGRI's Managing Director of Planning and Design. "It’s really about creating probably structures, heat, heat sources, anything that helps activate the social zones and allows people to sit outside during the winter months."
In May, the Grand Rapids City Commission approved social Zones. Last month, it agreed to extend social zones through May of 2021.
Miller said different restaurants have been trying out different approaches to winterization, so they did not want to provide a one-size fits all approach. GRDI purchased around 200 tables and 800 chairs in May for the social zones.
"There was a lot of creativity, and I think that’s what drove our grant process," said Miller. "Instead of us trying to think about what kind of heaters will we buy, and what kind of structure should we buy, we’ll let the restaurants figure it out because each one is unique."
One restaurant finding a creative solution is House of Wine on Monroe Center. Its owner, Jim Lynch, has spent the past week building a wooden structure in the social zone.
The structure is eight by eight feet, and will hold one table when completed. It will be heated and have a domed roof, but still feel like the diner is eating outside.
"You're going to be outdoors eating," said Lynch. "Your feet will be on the street, but we’ll have some heat out there to trim off the extreme cold."
Lynch is still in the process of building and getting inspections, but hopes to be finished soon. He said the social zone concept saved his business this summer. But once the temperatures dropped, the challenge began.
"Right away, when the weather changed, that business evaporated," said Lynch.
Lynch said other restaurants are exploring many different options. However, Monroe Center came with some challenges for structures in their social zones. He said the road is heated to keep the snow from piling up in winter, so he could not fix any structure to the ground. Plus, many pre-made structures are on backorder and expensive due to high demand this year.
He thinks the unique aspect of his structure, and others doing different things, will continue to bring business to downtown.
"If it’s unique enough, and cool enough, I think it becomes a destination," said Lynch. "Because downtown is not the same it was. There’s no theater, there’s no hockey games, no concerts, so it’s just different. We need to get people to come into the city, park their car, and go through all that hassle, because we’re offering something unique."
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