Restaurant owners hope for a mild winter, look for ways to keep customers warm outside

How outdoor dining will proceed in cooler temperatures

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, restaurant owners across the Cape Fear are keeping their fingers crossed it’ll be a warmer winter than usual.

“Since we’re at half capacity inside, we doubled the tables outside to basically try to make up for what we’re losing inside,” said Sarah Lookingbill, the owner of Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar in Leland. “Now we’ve actually been trying to deal with the heater situation, because I don’t know what’s going on...but you can’t find them anywhere.”

Lookingbill is trying to stay positive as winter approaches, but on days like Wednesday...where temperatures are in the 50s, 40s, and even 30s...it’s hard to make outdoor seating desirable.

“This [the patio] is our moneymaker,” said Lookingbill. “I feel bad for businesses that don’t have this. This is the reason that we basically are above ground at this point—it’s because we have this great space out here.”

Lookingbill says she’s been looking for more heat lamps to put on their patio. She has a few already, but says they aren’t reliable.

“The problem with these is the wind will take them,” said Lookingbill. “I’ve been trying multiple places and multiple different locations to try to find new ones, and you just can’t get them.”

She said she’s tried Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Amazon. Lookingbill says they’re either out of stock, will arrive too late, or are just too expensive.

“At this point, it’s how do we get to utilize it when it’s freezing cold?” said Lookingbill. “It’ll be trying to find more propane heaters. And like I said, trying to do other stuff around the outside bar to make sure that everybody’s comfortable and doesn’t feel like it’s outside.”

Donald Boltz owns Fish Bites Seafood in Wilmington. Right before restaurants were allowed to reopen for limited seating back in the Spring, Boltz decided to build a small patio in the parking lot. He said it’s what got them through the summer.

“We’re a small restaurant,” said Boltz. “When you have to remove a bunch of tables and reduce our capacity, it really wasn’t worth staying open or doing this. So building this gave us capacity that helps keep people their jobs and have regular revenue.”

Boltz said the patio was great all summer and they plan to keep it, but now that winter is near, he’s wondering how he’s going to get people to still eat out there.

“That creates a problem,” said Boltz. “This is dependent on the weather...whether it’s raining or cold. I have considered closing it in, but we’re not getting a lot of foresight from the governor and what he’s gonna do.”

Boltz says closing it in would technically make it indoor seating and if Governor Cooper decides to limit indoor seating even more, or worse...close indoor seating completely again, that would really hurt Boltz’s business.

Boltz said he also looked into getting heat lamps, but didn’t think they’d be worth the cost if there wasn’t an enclosure to help keep the heat in.

Lookingbill and Boltz both just hope this winter is warmer than usual so they can keep customers outside and stay in business.

“Whether people feel comfortable enough coming in or sitting outside or just doing to-go’s...I think it’s really important that they support local businesses,” said Boltz.

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