Powell restaurants try to maintain outdoor dining as winter nears

Jim Fischer
ThisWeek

The changing weather and the recent surge in COVID-19 coronavirus cases are presenting new challenges to the area’s dining and drinking establishments.

Many restaurants and bars in and around Powell have spent recent months adapting their sites to allow for new, augmented or improved outdoor seating to compensate for occupancy limits imposed as part of health guidelines designed to limit spread of the virus.

But cooling weather and the approach of winter mean some of those creative approaches to traditional business models will need to be adjusted again.

“This season is definitely going to be a challenge,” said James Knott, director of sales and marketing for Nocterra Brewing at 14 Depot St. in Powell. “We’ve prided ourselves on strictly adhering to state regulations, and we’ve accepted a certain seasonality to our business. But we’ve worked hard to have people feel comfortable outdoors in the beer garden.”

Pablo Taura, who owns Pablo’s Havana Cafe at 9685 Sawmill Road, acknowledged there is only so much that can, or even should, be done to his dining room in hopes of bringing more customers indoors.

“Our dining room is great. We have lots of room to keep people 6 feet apart, but it’s obvious there are a lot of people that just aren’t comfortable dining inside,” Taura said.

Prior to the pandemic, Taura said, his business was 75% dine-in and 25% carryout. Those numbers are flipped now, and the total doesn’t make up for the loss in dine-in patrons, he said.

Area residents and governmental agencies have been helpful and supportive, Taura said. 

“We’re lucky in some ways. Our food travels well, and Powell is a tight community that really took to our takeout menu,” he said.

State agencies and his landlord expedited a small outdoor seating area in the parking spaces immediately in front of the restaurant this summer, Taura said. He plans to continue using it as long as people are willing to sit there.

“The business tells me what we need. I’m always talking to our customers. Right now, we don’t have heaters out there, but it’s a quick trip to buy them and get them installed if people want it,” he said.

Nocterra has rebuilt its taproom furniture and added dividers to improve its indoor seating, but Knott said the focus remains outdoors despite the dropping temperatures.

The staff has installed heaters on its beer garden, which already boasted a number of fire pits, and Knott said they’ve encouraged patrons to bring their own blankets. He said the brewery is considering an event to which guests would wear their favorite outdoorsy gear.

A covered back patio at Local Roots, 15 E. Olentangy St. in Powell, is shown during warmer months.

Local Roots owner Jessi Iams said she has adopted the homey, informal approach of customers in blankets, as well.

“We are encouraging guests that want to dine outside to bring blankets and wear winter wear,” she said. “We have (blankets), too, (but) people are weird about using them.”

The covered back patio at Local Roots, 15 E. Olentangy St., features a fireplace and heaters, Iams said, and that’s not likely to change.

“I think enclosing the patio would be the same as dining in. That is why we didn’t proceed in that investment,” she said. “Maybe a good choice, maybe not a good choice. Time will tell.”

Finding different ways to get food and drink to customers also has been a focus during the pandemic. Pablo’s added a food truck over the summer. Although Taura expects that aspect of the business to dip during the colder months, he said, the truck likely always will be part of the business.

With the holidays approaching, Taura said, he will focus on offering traditional Cuban meals for small family gatherings, up to 10 people.

“Pork, rice, beans, plantains. These are perfect for family-style takeout,” he said. “Christmas Eve in particular is big in Cuban culture.”

Knott said Nocterra has added home delivery for anyone within 20 miles of the brewery, with a minimum order.

“We’re completely changing our business model every couple months,” he said. “Fortunately, we’ve been doing OK.”

“You have to be willing to adapt, to try different things and to listen to what customers say they want,” Taura said. “We’ve been lucky. Our sales are down overall, but so far, I’m paying the bills.”

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