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Restaurants, wineries add chilly weather to menu of challenges

Cooler, rainy weather signaling winter presents another set of challenges for Sonoma County’s array of restaurants, wineries and breweries that have relied heavily on outdoor dining to endure the coronavirus pandemic to this point.

Earlier hopes by this time of the year that the virus would be sufficiently suppressed to resume indoor service have been dashed. With COVID-19 transmission widespread in the county and state, there’s really no definitive timetable of when it will be safe to welcome customers back inside for food and drinks.

Now, cash-strapped hospitality operators are weighing hard decisions whether to invest tens of thousands of dollars for tent enclosures and heat lamps to keep customers comfortable eating outside over the winter or scale back operations until next spring.

The timing of the winter slowdown could not be worse, with many restaurants in dire straits. They have spent all the money they received through the federal Paycheck Protection Program earlier this year, and Congress has bogged down, bickering over more emergency financial relief for small businesses and consumers.

Restaurateurs are lobbying Congress to pass the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which would provide $120 billion in grants to small restaurants and bars disrupted by the pandemic.

“Without that, I don’t see us lasting much longer,” said Carlo Cavallo, executive chief and co-owner of B&V Whiskey Bar and Grille in Sonoma. “If we have a harsh winter, ... it’s not going to work.”

B&V kept operating in the summer with expanded seating outside on Sonoma Plaza. In the fall, the restaurant only had the outdoor space around its building, meaning fewer tables. As temperatures cooled, heaters were added but no tent. That hurt a couple weeks ago when storms brought rain, washing out a big slice of weekend business.

Why not get a tent to cover the restaurant’s outside seating area? The cost would be tens of thousands of dollars, and Cavallo said, “we don’t have that money.”

In Healdsburg, Jordan Vineyard & Winery opted to pause its wine tastings until at least January. The winery will prepare for spring visitors by renovating its private guest suites.

“Wine tasting al fresco when it’s cold and rainy just doesn’t sound enjoyable, especially since it will require space heaters, plastic tents or other makeshift shelters,” said Lisa Mattson, the winery’s marketing director. “That isn’t the kind of Wine Country hospitality experience we want to provide at Jordan.”

Mattson said the recent closure has not caused much financial hardship because Jordan pivoted to virtual wine tastings for its members and other groups, including one for a large corporate online gathering of 100 people for a wine, cheese and meat pairing.

At Moonlight Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, owner Brian Hunt has decided to cut back outdoor operations, particularly on weekends. Breweries have been hampered because state public health officials have deemed beer drinking a riskier activity than wine tasting, requiring patrons to buy a meal if they want to drink. Most local craft breweries have had to hire food trucks to comply with the mandate to serve food with beers.

Others are girding for Old Man Winter and forging ahead. Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol said it erected a clear tent 22 feet high around its beer garden and installed heaters.

Besides the expense, tents have become subject to more public health regulation, though. The risk of coronavirus spread is greater in confined spaces, even outside under coverings and tent-like enclosures that restaurants have begun to use to keep drawing customers during rainy and cold days.

The current regulation in Sonoma County requires tents and canopies to have at least one side open to allow for sufficient air flow, said Adam Brand, deputy county counsel.

“The state is working on revising language to provide some more practical details and we’re looking forward to that,” Brand said. “Businesses and organizations have reached out to ask whether their particular setup may be acceptable.“

Cavallo said when temperatures drop under 60 degrees, outdoor heaters and enclosures will be insufficient to keep customers comfortable because cold air will blow inside the wide-open one side of the tent.

Nonetheless, Russian River Brewing Co. has spent $50,000, including $12,000 on heat lamps, to winterize outdoor seating areas at its Santa Rosa and Windsor brewpubs. Like tents and outdoor enclosures, there are local safety rules to follow to run heaters.

In Santa Rosa, Russian River is only allowed five heaters in its outdoor dining area on Fourth Street. And the heat lamps must be positioned to maintain 5 feet of space between the top of the lamps and the tent covering overhead.

“A lot of our customers are chilly at night, but there is nothing I can do about it,” said co-owner Natalie Cilurzo. “We’re doing our best to make people as comfortable as we can. We are selling a lot of our sweatshirts.”

Fire agencies across the county are working to finalize guidelines for all restaurants and establishments that will use outdoor heaters this winter, said Scott Moon, Santa Rosa Fire Department’s fire marshal. Safety concerns vary from tents catching on fire, propane tanks used to power heaters exploding and potential carbon monoxide poisoning to diners inside outdoor enclosures.

Despite the recent chilly weather, the breakfast crowd keeps showing up to get a seat outside at Dierk's Parkside Cafe in Santa Rosa when it opens at 7 a.m., owner Mark Dierkhising said.

“There's a lot of customers that are going, ’Oh, we really liked this being outside,’ even at 39 degrees at seven o'clock eating breakfast,” said Dierkhising, who also owns Dierk's Midtown Cafe. “We were shocked.”

Also betting that after months cooped up inside people will venture outdoors even over the winter, Lambert Bridge Winery in Healdsburg built an outdoor patio.

The winery can host groups of up to six at two different lounges — with new furniture that looks like it could be out of a Pottery Barn catalog — for twice daily wine tastings.

“We have nice couches and put lanterns up hanging from the tents and just tried to make it cozy and feel homey,” said Katie Fay, the winery’s marketing director. “We’re trying to adapt with the times.”

Sonoma County and its premium wines still attracts Lambert Bridge’s longtime members and lures new visitors, she said.

“I think everybody is looking for an excuse to get out,” Fay said, noting the tumultuous year. “We really try to create this little oasis where people can go and relax because it’s been a really high-stress time this year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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