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Columbia restaurants brace for winter-time hit to outdoor dining

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Kristian Niemi closes up shop at his Main Street restaurant Bourbon back in March. Photo by Thomas Hammond

COLUMBIA — Winter is coming.

And as with “Game of Thrones”’ Westeros, the approaching cold season is a looming threat on the Columbia food scene. Consumer confidence has risen over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a contingent of diners are still wary of broaching indoor dining, only willing to eat at restaurants’ outdoor areas, owners said.

“Not (feeling) great,” Columbia chef and restaurant owner Kristian Niemi said of his outlook heading into the upcoming season. “We lose our ability to seat outside as much.”

Niemi owns the Main Street whiskey bar and creole-leaning eatery Bourbon and the West Columbia rooftop bar and French-ish Southern restaurant Black Rooster. Since reopening in September, those spots have relied substantially on outdoor seating, as Niemi has held off on returning to full seating capacity.

At Bourbon, he has expanded outdoor seating, and Black Rooster’s expansive outdoor area has always been a draw.

If winter forces the shuttering of either restaurant’s outdoor dining, Niemi said Bourbon would lose out on half of its current seating and described the potential loss of seating at Black Rooster as “devastating.”

While South Carolina experiences relatively mild winters compared to other regions in the country — the North and Midwest could face catastrophic effects as snow and frigid temperatures wipe out outdoor eating entirely without significant investments in "winterizing" outdoor spaces — restaurant owners’ fears are amplified last year’s unusually wet winter.

Even though temperatures never dipped below 23 degrees, per WLTX, the Midlands received more than 20 inches of rain from across December to February.

So far in 2020, the fall has been a boon, weather wise, for restaurants. Temperatures have remained high and diners have readily taken advantage of spots with outdoor seating.

“We’re hoping that this nice-weather fall continues as long as possible as opposed to last year's abrupt cold and wet fall,” Niemi said.

At Northeast Columbia restaurant Ratio, which celebrated its grand opening on Oct. 23, chef and owner Javier Uriarte estimated that roughly 40 percent of his customers are only eating outdoors on his 35-seat patio.

He’s outfitted his covered outdoor space, which protects from the rain, with heaters and plans to buy blankets for guests to help counter the forthcoming colder temperatures.

“I think overall in the winter everyone is slow, that’s just kind of what happens, during the holidays no one really goes out too much,” Uriarte posited.

Still, he said he feels that this winter could potentially turn the other way as people may travel less as the pandemic stretches on, and hopes that there could be a slight bump in business.

Ratio is also banking that its focus on private events will assist in growing its visibility and drawing more customers. The restaurant is open four days a week and leaves the rest of the week open for private dinners and other similar ventures.

“That’s something we can keep doing during the winter, then we’ll be okay. That makes a bad night (good,)” Uriarte said.

Beyond the effects on customers, there’s speculation that there could be a coronavirus surge in the country during the winter as people spend more time indoors. Experts have noted, however, that the seasonality of COVID-19 has yet to be determined.

If poor, though, that could potentially reignite calls for protective measures that harken back to the initial stages, when the virus caused politicians to restrict the hospitality industry.

Niemi stressed the potential negative impact of winter calls for more federal and state aid. Whether that comes is uncertain. The U.S. House passed a bill in October that included $120 billion in aid for the independent restaurant industry, but its future in the Senate seems murky.

In South Carolina, the state recently debuted a grant program for small businesses and minority-owned businesses. Gov. Henry McMaster recently said it could be the “final chance” for COVID-19 relief.

Without more aid, the effects could be dire for restaurants.

“Without any sort of assistance program, through the winter ... if it's a long cold winter, I don’t know how long we could last,” Niemi said.

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