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Uneasy restaurants prepare to weather wintertime

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Ryan German, owner of Caffé Gelato, lights one of his heaters used for outdoor dining. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

New Castle County and the Committee of 100 have partnered up to create a $300,000 grant fund focused on getting restaurants and bars through the impending winter season. The Winter Ready Restaurant Grant program will pay for heaters, tents, awnings, outside furniture and more to keep restaurants open this winter as indoor capacity is still limited to 60% occupancy under the state’s pandemic guidelines.

Grants are capped at $5,000 per award and will cover expenses incurred from March 1 to Dec. 30. For Steve Torpey, owner of Stanley’s Tavern, $5,000 is equivalent to two months rent on a tent outside the popular sports bar off Foulk Road.

“The program is a help, but when you also have tables and chairs in the tent, and you have to heat it, it’s a lot of expenses. The heat is astronomical,” Torpey said. “Right now, we’re OK, but sales are still 40% down from where they were last year. I’m not sure we can sustain that level.”

Seven months into the pandemic and four since Gov. John Carney allowed restaurants to seat up to 60% capacity, restaurants have turned to outdoor seating to welcome patrons. Many municipalities have embraced outdoor dining like Newark’s al fresco program drawing about 150 patrons on Wednesday nights, Wilmington encouraging parklet seating and Rehoboth Beach closing down roads at some points to let restaurants spread out.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about the winter, and some are preparing right now. But what we don’t really think about is the added expense for it,” said Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association. “There’s some creative thinking happening right now about space, but it’s reaching a point where restaurants are deciding whether to weatherize is worth it.”

Ryan German, owner of Caffé Gelato on Newark’s Main Street invested in 16 propane heaters for outdoor dining, each at $300, but said it was getting harder to come by in the stores due to high demand.

“We’re just trying to plan everything in December, January and March under current regulations,” German said at a press conference announcing the county’s grant program. “We’re planning New Year’s Eve dinner now and that could be 5 to 8 p.m. at 60% capacity. We just have to be resilient.”

Right now, al fresco serves Caffé Gelato well. German said it’s a difference of $3,000 above normal revenues during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Torpey said the winter season and sports that would normally keep Stanely’s Tavern has been pretty quiet so far. COVID-19 precautions essentially take away the crowded bars and shouting at TV screens, and other events.

“People don’t want to sit outdoors when it’s freezing and people still want fresh air. We blocked two sides of the tent for the wind,” he said. “The problem is confidence about eating indoors. We’re working to be safe for our staff and the community. But on TV and radio, the message is the same: Stay home. How do you compete with that?”

To apply for the Winter Ready Restaurant Grant program, visit committeeof100.com

By Katie Tabeling

[email protected]

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