Milder temperatures may just be setting in, but the city of Chicago and restaurateurs are already focused on what comes next: snow, ice, and freezing winter temperatures that will provide yet another obstacle as the local hospitality industry struggles with limitations brought about by COVID-19. Chicago officials have already released rules for fall and winter dining over the weekend, with guidelines for safety measures, including operational regaulations for heaters, which could be helpful except for one problem: demand for the appliances have skyrocketed to the point where orders are being cancelled and sellers are price gouging.
Anna Posey, a chef and co-owner of Michelin-starred West Loop restaurant Elske, says she and husband David ordered four heaters at around $140 each from Lowe’s a few weeks ago, but then received an unusual email asking them to wait for confirmation before picking up the items. Days turned to more than a week, and after some phone wrangling, a Lowe’s employee finally told Posey that “the manufacturer can’t agree on a price, so they’re cancelling any orders that are currently pending.”
Sure enough, her order was canceled the next day and Posey was left with the impression that the original manufacturer (not Lowe’s) planned to increase the price.
“We couldn’t get any at Lowe’s, Home Depot, Ace Hardware — the only place where we were able to source them is [party rental company] Tablescapes, and they charge thousands for rentals,” says Posey. “It doesn’t make sense financially to spend $8,000 on four heaters.”
Derrick Tung of the Chicago location of Paulie Gee’s never even got to the ordering stage. The $150-ish base model he hoped to purchase is sold out nearly everywhere, he says. He likened the shopping expereince to the early days of the pandemic when panic-stricken shoppers cleared entire grocery stores out of toilet paper and paper towels.
Tung is only trying to find one heater to provide some comfort for customers who come to pick up pizza this winter. Those who do have them for sale are charging around $400 to $450 a pop, he says, like a supplier in Eglin who told Tung he’s sold around 300 patio heaters over the past few days.
“There’s a point where I won’t spend four, five [times] the original price,” he says. “It’s a little stressful for me, but much worse for people trying to heat a whole patio... I’m confident we will find another solution.”
Both Tung and Posey turned to family and friends for help, the latter taking to social media to ask if friends or family could assist. Others without much heater experience are using social media to try and learn quickly: “Looking into patio heaters to try and sustain our business as long, and as safely, as possible,” a post in a private service industry Facebook group reads. “I haven’t had any prior experience with them, and didn’t know if folks had recommendations on what to look for, what to avoid, and any feelings about them in general.”
Heater shortages aren’t unique to Chicago as restaurant owners in California have reported shortages as well. Posey says her friends at Brooklyn restaurant Olmsted have had problems finding nearly any kind of patio accouterment. The Elske team hasn’t yet decided on a plan for what happens if they are still heater-less when the weather gets really cold, but it could invest in low-tech heat-retention methods like blankets and hot drinks.
To many who are concerned about the future of independent restaurants, increasing prices on standard-issue patio heaters just as restaurants across the country continue to struggle for solvency isn’t a good look. Some viable ideas may emerge from the city’s Winter Dining Challenge competition, but most owners are still facing plenty of unknowns as winter approaches.