As weather turns colder, Delaware restaurants get help to add heaters for outdoor dining

A skeleton sits outside Ali Baba restaurant in Newark

Restaurant operators hope a grant program that will pay for heaters will scare up more diners to eat outside even as the weather turns cooler. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

On a typical October morning, thousands of University of Delaware students would crisscross Main Street in downtown Newark. At times, there are so many pedestrians it’s difficult to drive down the street that’s home to lots of restaurants and other businesses.

This year is very different. With most UD students taking classes virtually, there are few pedestrians or cars making their way past those stores and eateries.

Main Street in Newark
Main Street in Newark usually bustles with thousands of college students on a normal October morning — but not this year. Downtown restaurants hope new funding for heaters will bring back more diners to eat outside as the weather turns colder. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

One thing that’s helped restaurants stay alive is outdoor dining, says Ryan German, who owns Caffé Gelato on Main Street. He’s seen good crowds for Wednesday night’s Main Street Alfresco when Main Street is shut down and tables take over the roadway.

“When we’ve had good weather, we’ve had good attendance outside, but if there’s rain it’s tough,” German said. “We’ve had days where, boy, it’s not busy. And then there’s other days where this feels pretty good, people are starting to come out.”

Colder weather poses a big threat to the outdoor dining business, but German and other restaurateurs will get help from New Castle County to keep customers warm as the weather turns. The county will use $350,000 of its federal CARES Act money to provide grants worth up to $5,000 for restaurants to winterize their outdoor space.

NCCo Executive Matt Meyer visits Caffé Gelato in downtown Newark
NCCo Executive Matt Meyer visits Caffé Gelato in downtown Newark to talk about a new grant program to help restaurants “winterize” their outdoor dining spaces to extend the sidewalk dining season. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

“What we’re learning now is how to be resilient, and how to be safe, and how to prioritize public health while we continue our lives,” said New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer. “While we make sure Caffé Gelato, Ryan and his staff are well-employed and can stay economically healthy, mentally healthy and physically healthy.”

Last year, German said you could buy a portable heater for $150. Now, with increased demand, the price has doubled. “Each unit’s about $300 and we need one per table, so it adds up,” he said.

When placed next to a table, the units can make a 45-degree day feel more like 70 degrees for diners.

“It’s going to help us tremendously,” German said. “We’re trying to work with the different restaurants in the county so that everybody gets a heater.”

Applications can be submitted to The Committee of 100 website, a nonpartisan, nonprofit association of Delaware business leaders that will make the decision on what restaurants are awarded grants.

NCCo Executive Matt Meyer talks with Caffé Gelato owner Ryan German under heat lamps outside German's restaurant in downtown Newark
NCCo Executive Matt Meyer talks with Caffé Gelato owner Ryan German under heat lamps outside German’s restaurant in downtown Newark. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Beyond heaters, the money can be used to rent or buy tents, awnings and side panels, as well as propane, lighting and furniture.

Any restaurant with an active Temporary Commercial Outdoor Sales permit can apply for funding. All independent and locally owned food and drink establishments may apply, as well as Delaware-based franchises. If a restaurant has already spent money to prepare for colder weather, the grants can be applied retroactively to pay for those purchases.

As of now, Newark’s Main Street Alfresco is scheduled to run on Wednesday nights through Dec. 2, but expanded outdoor patios have been approved through March.

German says while the heaters will help, “we might ask people this year to wear a sweater or be willing to wear a scarf.”

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