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What might COVID winter dining look like? IDEO and Chicago have some out-there ideas

October 9, 2020, 1:15 AM UTC

Back in August, city of Chicago officials knew that piercing gusts of wind and sub-zero temperatures were only a few months away from deterring residents from eating outside and, in turn, devastating many of the city’s restaurants and bars. According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants who utilize outdoor/patio areas have derived 44% of their revenue from outdoor dining since the start of the pandemic.

To envision how restaurants might survive the winter, the city of Chicago and global design firm IDEO crowdsourced over 600 ideas for the future of winter outdoor dining. Rather than just seek the expertise of a limited group of stakeholders, the city and IDEO made the contest open to anyone––whether a resident of Chicago, Stockholm, or anywhere between––with the hope that innovative solutions could be spread to other cities around the country and world.

“I’d say [weather- and pandemic-related challenges] were both pretty tricky,” Catherine Corbin, Managing Director of IDEO Chicago, said. And though there were no “easy answers” she says the competition sparked some thoughtful ideas that balanced keeping customers warm, safe, and providing owners with enough capacity to make operating worthwhile.

Judges––a mixed panel of local restaurant stakeholders, community members, and government officials––were tasked with whittling down the entrants to three winners, whose ideas are outlined below.

Heated Tables

Ubiquitous in Japanese households, the heated table is certainly an economical way of keeping patrons warm when the temperature dips below freezing.

The idea, created by Ellie Henderson, only requires the following: a table (restaurants can simply repurpose existing ones), a blanket, a heating device, and another flat surface. The heating device, either a specific Kotatsu heater or another method like a heated mat, would be placed under the table. The blanket would then be draped over the table, trapping the heat and not letting it escape into the cold air. Finally, another flat surface would be placed on top of that blanket.

City of Chicago Winter Dining Challenge-Heated Tables
The solution of having heated tables allows patrons to be safe and stay comfortably warm while still patronizing their favorite restaurants.
Courtesy of Ellie Henderson

Simple enough. Will it actually keep away the cold? It remains to be seen, especially if it’s windy and wet out, but the heated tables could provide a cozy way for patrons to dine outside in a fairly comfortable, safe, and standard way. Seating for this type of table design would typically entail pillows or lawn chairs if sitting Japanese-style, but restaurants could also use chairs if they prefer.

Using only existing hardware outside of the heaters, this solution was one of the simplest to implement.

Cozy Cabins

An enclosed little hut that can fit within a standard parking space, the ‘cozy cabin’ is not too different than some of the ‘igloo’ or ‘greenhouse’ designs that have popped up from time to time.

Inspired by ice fishing huts and “warm, glowing cabins”, according to Amy Young who submitted the idea on behalf of design firm ASD | SKY, these cozy cabins would include radiant floor heating along with ceiling vents that allow for air circulation. The cabin walls are transparent, allowing patrons a community feel while still keeping them socially distant. Provided that the cabin interior is thoroughly cleaned after use, it should check the boxes as far as COVID-19 safety protocols are concerned.

City of Chicago Winter Dining Challenge-Cozy Cabins-ASD | SKY
Adjoining cozy “cabins” with radiant floor heating, designed to fit within the footprint of a standard parking space.
Courtesy of ASD | SKY

With regards to feasibility, construction of the cabin does not require any special materials, according to Young. Rather, it can be made from “wood, corrugated metal, polycarbonate plastic, and standard framing hardware,” which allows for the cabins to be prototyped immediately and relatively cost-effectively at scale.

Involving a more complicated set-up than the heated table, the cozy cabin makes up for it with better protection against the elements.

Block Party

The third winner combines the open-air benefits of the heated table design with the structured feel of the cozy cabins.

Submitted by Neil Reindel, the idea envisions rectangular blocks large enough to seat a party of two spaced out down a street’s parking lane. Each block would come with a built in table and chairs as well as radiant heating. However, each of the blocks would not be fully enclosed, allowing for air circulation and a community dining experience similar to that of the transparent cabins.

City of Chicago Winter Dining Challenge-Block Party
These “rectangular blocks” could be placed on streets outside restaurants.
Courtesy of Neil Reindel

If patrons are too chilly, though, each block can be equipped with a curtain to provide insulation and pack in the heat. Blocks can also be fastened together to accommodate different party sizes.

As this idea heads into the prototyping phase, details about cost and construction will need to be worked out.

All three winners will receive $5,000 along with the opportunity to pilot the ideas in restaurants throughout the city. Now the process of prototyping, piloting, and reiterating begins, which the Illinois Restaurant Association will oversee and which will be funded by BMO Harris Bank.

“As we all know, restaurants are the soul of every neighborhood,” Sam Toia, President and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said. “We got to keep them alive.”