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Wichita Restaurants Hope Heaters And Igloos Will Keep Outdoor Diners Coming During Pandemic

Stephan Bisaha
Becky Norton, owner of Norton's Brewing Company, stands beside one of the brewery's new garden igloos.

Norton’s Brewing Company in Old Town has a solution for outdoor dining this winter: igloos.

Forget images of packed snow: These igloos are made from PVC pipe and transparent vinyl. The sun heats up the air so quickly inside that umbrellas cover the honeycomb dome to slow down the greenhouse effect.

"We have it shaded right now because during the daytime it gets really hot in here with the sun," said Becky Norton, owner of Norton's Brewing Company. 

During the warmer months, outdoor dining helped restaurants attract customers uncomfortable eating indoors due to the pandemic. Restaurants hope igloos and heaters will let them keep some of those customers now that winter has settled in.

Norton’s built one igloo for about $800. And so far it's proved popular — the brewery says it’s booked for the next three weeks.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / KMUW
The view from inside of Norton's new garden igloo.

Even with the three extra igloos Norton’s plans on building, it won’t compare to the business their beer garden would normally make in the summer with its normal 300-person capacity. The igloo can only fit six customers, along with some couches and a couple heaters.

But with Sedgwick County’s coronavirus guidelines cutting the brewery’s indoor capacity in half, any extra business helps.

“Bringing in another 24 people at all times in here is like a whole 'nother third of what we’re allowed to have right now inside, so it makes a huge difference,” Norton said. 

Norton’s had planned on building the igloos for years, even before the coronavirus; the pandemic caused the company to follow through with the plans. Now the igloos will likely stick around even after the pandemic ends.

“The beer garden in the summer time can be 70% of our sales,” Norton said. “When we lose the beer garden and no one wants to hang out in the cold we just lose all of those people, and so I think it’s really going to help us through the winters.”

But outdoor dining comforts can only go so far to convince customers to eat outside in the winter chill, according to Adam Mills, president of the Kansas Restaurant And Hospitality Association.

"I just don't know how many people, especially when it's 20 degrees out and windy, are going to want to do that,” he said.

Mills said making customers feel safe eating indoors will go much further to help the restaurant industry, which has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

Larkspur Bistro & Bar in Old Town has been hurting both indoors and outdoors. It recently bought new heaters for its patio, but that business all but disappeared when the temperature dropped. The restaurant doesn't expect many customers to eat on the patio during the winter months, but wants to at least offer the option. 

Credit Stephan Bisaha / KMUW
At Larkspur Bistro & Bar, general manager James Chesick turns off an outdoor heater.

“With how cold it’s been, it’s just going to be hard to get anybody to sit outside,” Chesick said.

Fewer customers have been going to eat indoors at Larkspur since October, possibly because of the rise in coronavirus cases around that time.

The lower foot traffic has continued into December, Chesick said — that’s especially painful since Larkspur makes most of its money in the last month of the year. Large year-end celebrations aren’t happening, cutting off Larkspur’s banquet hall and catering revenue.

“In this business, without people you don’t make money,” Chesick said.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org.