The outdoor heaters and patio fire pits weren’t supposed to arrive until December, but the team at Fat Cat received a surprise Wednesday when a FedEx truck delivered the units to Uptown. Bar staff quickly set up the fire pits and heaters on the bar’s sidewalk patios and they were ready as temperatures dipped to the 60s. Propane heaters and fire pits will soon become a way of life for Chicago’s restaurants and bars thanks to the COVID-19 dining restrictions mandate by governmental officials.
“The restaurant industry needs help,” says Fat Cat owner Cy OIdham. “I don’t how anybody is going to survive during the winter.”
Oldham ordered the heaters three weeks ago. She says she made an investment in spending $7,000 on the propane heaters, gas, and fire pits. Labor Day has come and gone meaning the weather won’t be so patio friendly. And as COVID-19 keeps customers out of dining rooms, Chicago’s restaurants will soon see a dip in patio customers. Oldham says she hasn’t made any money in 2020. She’s keeping her restaurant and bar open to pay staff. The front of the house and kitchen are chipping in and covering each other’s responsibilities.
Oldham says she doesn’t know if any customers would have showed up on Wednesday and Thursday if not for the heaters and fire pits. Oldham is hopeful that the heaters will “buy them another two months” of operation, attracting enough customers to keep them open under these challenging conditions. The bar was busy Thursday night as customers showed up to watch the first game of the NFL season (TVs inside are visible from the patio). They’ve also been coming to watch baseball. When the state closed all restaurants and bars in mid-March for dine-in, Oldham began trimming expenses. They cancelled cable subscriptions and made other decisions. When restaurants reopened for on-site dining, Oldham had to carefully decide what to bring back. For North Siders, watching the Chicago Cubs in a comfy and safe environment has brought back some normalcy. Fat Cat now takes reservations to prevent customers from loitering too long.
“Our little motto is ‘safety is the new service,’” Oldham says.
She says fall is Chicago’s favorite season and she wanted to capitalize on beautiful autumn nights. Fat Cat’s been around since 2007 and prospers as a welcoming neighborhood spot. It also draws business from concert-goers at the nearby Riviera and Aragon theaters. The pandemic has crushed the music industry, so Fat Cat hasn’t seen that benefit this year. The challenges keeping piling up and that’s left Oldham to set up shelves inside her bar to sell to-go wine and even cookie dough.
Fat Cat has 10 heaters and two patios. They can also set up tables and chairs on Broadway as part of the city’s street dining program. Oldham credits Uptown United for championing local restaurants and securing the needed permits.
The heaters have caused some buzz. Local website Uptown Update snapped a photo of the patio and that generated banter. Bars and restaurants across the Midwest are preparing to go through winter without many dine-in customers. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office last month announced a winter restaurant design contest hoping to generate enthusiasm while crowdsourcing ideas that could help the food industry.
Oldham lauded the contest and awaits its findings. But for now, she’s set up heaters outside aimed at her bar’s windows. When the windows are left open, customers can be indoors and covered from rain without freezing: “Anything helps,” Oldham says.
In other news...
— John Manion, the chef and owner of El Che Steakhouse & Bar, has been lighting some fires outside his suburban home. Manion and food writer Maggie Hennessy have been working on a zine with a simple premise: how to cook a large piece of meat over an open flame. Hennessy (an Eater Chicago contributor) and Manion call their work Meat Project: A Backyard Fire Cooking Zine: “Building a fire pit is easy! Cooking over it is fun! We’ll show you how to fire-roast a big-ass steak and what to serve with it.” The zine features color photos and they’re using Kickstarter to raise money. So far they’ve raised $3,600 of a $10,000 goal. The campaign’s deadline is September 30.
— Illinois has only one Black-owned brewery, and the Tribune caught up with Charles St. Clair of Black Horizon Brewing in suburban Willowbrook. St. Clair talked about watching older, white suburban beer drinkers saying “black is beautiful,” as they order Black is Beautiful, the name of a beer part of a nationwide anti-racist campaign. The Trib’s story also offers an update on Englewood Brews, another Black-owned project that was announced in 2018. Co-founder Leslie Roth says they’re looking for a new location.
— Off Color Brewing is dealing with some nonsense from customers at its Lincoln Park taproom. The pandemic has been tough, but a few select customers have made life tougher for John Laffler’s crew. Last month, there were customers griping about needing to leave a deposit on patio table reservations. Now, Off Color’s Ben Ustick took to Twitter to vent about annoying customers who were trying to circumvent the taproom’s policy by booking multiple tables. Chicago, of course, has a six-person limit for tables during the pandemic, and there are also overall capacity limits. Ustick writes: “No, dude. I don’t need to call you on the phone because we wouldn’t let you book multiple tables on our patio. No I don’t need you to mansplain why we don’t understand the city regulations. City law. Taproom rule. Doesn’t matter. What we say goes. Damn.”
— In an update from a story from two years ago, Urban Renewal Brewery has changed its name. The beer maker quietly made the switch in August and is now known as Urban Brew Labs. The company is also working toward opening a taproom. The former name proved controversial in relationship to its gentrifying-like vibe of pushing poor families out of neighborhoods. The owners of the brewery are starting fresh. They don’t know when they’ll open their new taproom, but it’s the old Koval Distillery space in Ravenswood.