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Patio chill: NM restaurants face challenges to manage outdoor dining in the cold

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Victor Zabel cuts a steel pipe while installing the new covered patio heater at Scalo as the Nob Hill restaurant prepares to open at 25% capacity. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With patio seating back on the table for restaurants, some restaurant owners are facing a new hurdle – keeping their customers warm during New Mexico’s colder months.

The state’s latest public health order, which went into effect Wednesday, allows restaurants to reopen in limited capacities based on a tiered system.

But welcoming back customers on-site with outdoor seating can come with some additional expenses.

“If we don’t have heating there we just have to shut down the restaurant and everything,” said Scalo co-owner Prashant Sawant.

As one of the few Nob Hill restaurants with a patio, Sawant said Scalo had been able to take full advantage of outdoor seating during the summer months. He said he had two options to get through the winter: Install a permanent heating system or use inefficient portable stand heaters.

Ultimately, Sawant decided to install radiant tube heating with the price tag of $6,000 to $7,000.

Even with a newly heated patio, Sawant said the best case scenario is breaking even.

“We are not going to make any profit,” he said. “… The plan is to just cover enough expenses and cover rent to survive through this pandemic.”

At Los Poblanos, preparation for outdoor dining during the winter began during the summer, said marketing manager Lauren Kemner.

The hotel and restaurant began installing heaters shortly after it expanded its patio with the help of a Bernalillo County grant. However, the offerings came with a large upfront cost.

“When our businesses were challenged with generating revenue, making a big investment to outdoor dining was definitely a risk – and one that we hope eventually pays off,” she said.

Kemner said Los Poblanos also installed 12 radiant heaters, each for $1,000 to $2,000 with additional installation fees.

“While it turned out great, it was daunting and much more complicated than we thought when we started the project,” she said.

Kemner said the price tag was necessary since it allows the company to stay open and continue to pay its employees.

“While dining outdoors in the height of winter is a new concept in New Mexico, we’re hoping that the community adapts to this new form of dining and hospitality,” Kemner said. “We’re anxious to see how well received it is, as dining in the height of winter in New Mexico is unknown territory.”

Steel Bender Brewyard co-owner and marketing director Shelby Chant said the brewery already had patio heaters ready for the winter and had purchased additional heaters several months ago – but staying open came with other changes.

Chant said the brewery has had to limit menu options and work with a skeleton crew.

“For us, we believe at this time, it’s worth it to have our patio open, even if for nothing other than providing some normalcy for folks who want nothing more than to bundle up with a pint and take in New Mexico’s outdoors,” Chant said. “But again, we are closely assessing guest response and will have to see what sales allow.”

 

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