Four Strategies That Just Might Help Restaurants Make It Through Winter

Adella Miesner

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exercise in throwing ideas against the walls of empty dining rooms and seeing what sticks. Restaurant owners morphed into makeshift grocers when supermarket shelves were sparsely stocked, figured out how to deliver margaritas by the quart, and cheekily seated stuffed animals at tables left […]


The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exercise in throwing ideas against the walls of empty dining rooms and seeing what sticks. Restaurant owners morphed into makeshift grocers when supermarket shelves were sparsely stocked, figured out how to deliver margaritas by the quart, and cheekily seated stuffed animals at tables left vacant to comply with capacity limits on indoor dining. To borrow a phrase from Billy Beane in Moneyball, these businesses must “adapt or die.”

Nearly one in six U.S. restaurants have closed permanently or indefinitely six months into a public health crisis people initially hoped would only last weeks. That’s approximately 100,000 closures, according to the National Restaurant Association. The trade group’s survey-based report, released in mid-September, also found 40 percent of restaurant owners don’t think they’ll be in business in another six months without additional relief from the federal government.

Restaurant owners and workers say their anxiety is at its highest level since March. Fall’s first cold snap hearkens the coming of winter and its challenges. There could be a second spike in cases that throws D.C.’s phased reopening process into reverse. Outdoor spaces, which have emerged as the safest and most desirable places to sit, are expensive to winterize, even with a new $4 million grant program from the city. Demand for heaters is already wiping out the supply.

Some local operators are capitulating, including Ian and Eric Hilton. On Halloween, they will close seven of their bars and restaurants for the foreseeable future. “With colder weather a few weeks away and no prospects for relief in sight, we think it makes sense to ramp things down and give potentially displaced members of the team time to look at other employment opportunities,” Ian told City Paper on Sept. 15. Those employees won’t find jobs at Capitol Lounge, Rebellion, BBQ Bus Smokehouse, Poca Madre, Taco Bamba on I Street NW, or Matchbox on 14th Street NW, which all closed in September.

While any attempt to innovate amid uncertainty is worthwhile, the time to distinguish between half-baked pivots and fully executed pirouettes is now. Several strategies restaurants and bars have utilized have proven to be more successful than others, especially if success is measured in new and different ways.

That could mean finding a way to sustain operations long enough to see the other side of the pandemic, bringing in enough money to employ as many people as possible, or finding ways to keep staff and customers healthy. The following approaches, which focus on takeout and delivery instead of dine-in business, aim to achieve one or more of these goals. The restaurants that test them provide diners with plenty of fun, unexpected, and interactive meals.

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