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Milwaukee outdoor restaurant dining will adapt with winter coming



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MILWAUKEE – On March 16, Nomad World Pub was to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

That same day, Nomad and other Wisconsin bars and restaurants were ordered to shut down as part of the state’s effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“So, that was brutal,” said Nomad owner Mike Eitel.

Five months later, with Milwaukee bars and restaurants operating at half capacity, Nomad has made big changes — including expanded outdoor dining to a closed street on the city’s east side.

Meanwhile, Eitel and other local restaurateurs are considering ways to improve their outdoor dining spaces so they can operate throughout the winter — while hoping Milwaukee will better embrace the cold, snowy season.

“Restaurants and bars are using any tool available to them to increase capacity and keep employees and customers safe,” said Kristine Hillmer, Wisconsin Restaurants Association chief executive officer and president.

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COVID-19 has especially hurt restaurants and taverns.

The use of social distancing to combat the pandemic’s spread means less space for dining and drinking — cutting revenue for those businesses.

Also, the pandemic has triggered a recession, marked by spiking unemployment rates. That means fewer people have the discretionary income to enjoy restaurants and bars.

As a result, there’s a growing list of restaurants in Milwaukee and other cities that are closing permanently.

The National Restaurant Association has estimated 30% of U.S. restaurants could close permanently because of the pandemic and recession, Hillmer said.

She believes that 30% estimate could be conservative.

That would have major implications for Wisconsin’s economy, where around 12,800 restaurants and taverns accounted for 284,600 jobs and $10.1 billion of sales in 2018, according to an industry estimate.

Hillmer worries about COVID-19’s resurgence, as well as questions about whether Congress and President Donald Trump will reach an agreement on another economic stimulus package.

Also, there are concerns about how much Wisconsin restaurants can continue to provide outdoor dining “once the temperature turns colder,” Hillmer said.

That weighs heavily on Eitel’s mind.

He’s filed plans with city building inspectors to add a heated outside bar at Nomad. But that likely wouldn’t be built until next spring. 

A patio in winter?

Meanwhile, Eitel is considering ways to keep Nomad’s patio open throughout winter.

Milwaukee began allowing restaurants to reopen with limited capacity on June 5.

Many patrons, mindful of the virus, prefer to dine outside.

Also, some restaurateurs remain concerned about the virus spreading even with reduced capacity, increased sanitation, mask requirements and other safety measures.

Nomad’s indoor seating, with room for up to 99 patrons, remains closed. 

The patio can normally accommodate up to 160 patrons. That’s now limited to 80 people because of the pandemic, Eitel said.

However, Nomad was the first Milwaukee restaurant to obtain city permission to shut down a street for outdoor dining under the new Active Streets for Businesses Program.

The pilot program, which the Common Council and Mayor Tom Barrett approved in June, suspends code and permit requirements to allow expedited city approval for restaurants to use streets and sidewalks for outdoor dining. It also waives fees for those businesses.

Several restaurants are using the program to convert parking lanes into seasonal dining space.

Nomad went further.

Along with a parking lane, it is using a small portion of North Warren Avenue, just south of Brady Street, during peak periods. Those public spaces have added room for 76 patrons.

“Oh my God, it saved our asses,” Eitel said about the additional street dining space.

But the pilot program is set to end on Nov. 15. So, Eitel’s focus is on making the patio usable throughout winter.

That could include building wind walls and covered areas, he said. Also, additional portable heaters could be added. 

Other Milwaukee restaurants and taverns that depend heavily on outdoor space could take similar steps.

Bavette La Boucherie hasn’t reopened its indoor space because of concerns about the virus, said Karen Bell, chef and owner.

Bavette’s expanded outdoor dining space, including tables on a closed portion of the street, has helped make up that loss, she said.

Bell is nervous about winter.

The restaurant could keep sidewalk dining once the street dining period hits the city’s November end date, Bell said. But she isn’t sure outdoor heaters will be enough to keep patrons comfortable in December, January and February.

So, depending on whether the coronavirus is still surging, that could mean a return to takeout-only service this winter, Bell said.

“I think about it daily,” she said. “I don’t have any answers yet.”

Embracing winter

What’s needed, Eitel said, is “a cultural shift” to embrace winter.

He cites the cold weather bar scene in Minneapolis.

“It’s 20 degrees out and people are still enjoying themselves,” Eitel said.

Canada’s Edmonton, Alberta, offers another example.

Edmonton’s WinterCity initiative has focused on cold weather events, sports and other activities to make the season more vibrant.

That effort even includes winter design development guidelines. 

They follow such principles as using design strategies to block wind, particularly prevailing winds and downdrafts; maximizing exposure to sunshine; and using color “to enliven the winterscape.”

One challenge is that creating winter events can require “a lot of money with little payoff for who is hosting it,” said Jeremy Fojut, co-founder of NEWaukee, which operates downtown’s summer Night Market and other events.

“A majority of our public spaces or things we build for programming never allot money for the events,” Fojut said. “So significant sponsorship has to be raised, which is always a full-time job.”

Other tactics could include planting evergreen trees in public spaces that provide windbreaks during the winter; capturing steam heat that is vented from downtown sidewalk grates and designing bus shelters to better block the elements. Fojut said.

Coordination between the private and public sectors is needed, said developer Tim Gokhman, New Land Enterprises LLP managing director.

New Land’s Kinetik apartment building will feature a street-level food hall: Flour and Feed.

Flour and Feed will include seating on a heated pedestrian plaza that New Land converted from a vacated half-block of East Archer Avenue.

But plans to improve the adjacent city-owned Zillman Park haven’t yet proceeded, Gokhman said.

Year-round parklets?

City officials also could help by allowing restaurants to use parking lanes for outdoor dining throughout the year, said architect Chris Socha, of TKWA Urban Lab, whose clients include Nomad.

Those parking lane dining spots, known as “parklets,” are now allowed only from March 15 to Nov. 15. Removing that restriction would require action by the Common Council and Mayor Barrett.

In addition, the city could allow the new East Side Art Lot to operate beyond November. 

The Art Lot features picnic benches decorated by artists on an underused city-owned parking lot.

The space, which can be used for carryout dining from nearby restaurants, opened Friday. It was created by the East Side Business Improvement District.

A fire pit could be added to the Art Lot when the weather turns colder, said Elizabeth Brodek, district executive director.

“It’s about embracing the romanticism of the time of year, rather than viewing it as ‘bitter cold,'” she said.

Annual events such as Christkindlmarket, at the entertainment plaza outside Fiserv Forum, and Mitten Fest, hosted by Burnhearts tavern, show that people will venture outside in winter to eat, drink and have fun, Socha said.

“This may be the most important issue to recognize. People will attract people,” he said.

“People will attract other people in the winter in the same way that it happens in the summer,” Socha said. “You just have to give them a reason to show up.”

Tom Daykin can be emailed at tdaykin@jrn.com and followed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook

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