We’ve said it multiple times in the last couple of weeks: winter is coming for outdoor dining. And when it arrives, restaurants may be even more limited as to how they can serve dine-in customers in the midst of a pandemic and reduced capacity mandates for the dining room.
Chicago, a city that’s no stranger to harsh winters, is preemptively dealing with this situation by challenging residents to redesign the outdoor restaurant experience. Dubbed the Winter Design Challenge and done in partnership with IDEO, BMO Harris Bank, and the Illinois Restaurant Association, the contest is looking for outdoor dining ideas that can adhere to safety restrictions around COVID-19 while still allowing restaurant customers to eat outdoors.
Participants can submit ideas through September 7. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office told NBC Chicago that winners will receive $5,000 each and “opportunities to start their idea at restaurants and bars around the city.”
Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, added that, “We need out-of-the-box thinking to address the hardship facing our industry.”
We’ve seen some of that outside-the-box thinking already in the restaurant industry, from outdoor self-service kiosks to greenhouse-like buildings that enclose individual tables. But winter weather provides a whole new set of challenges that a few heat lamps may not be enough to solve.
A panel of local judges will pick one winner from the following categories: outdoor structures; indoor-adjacent spaces; and cultural change/other ideas.
Ideas are already pouring in, including heated tent rentals, blankets, solar-powered pergolas, and actual igloos. There are also several suggestions to simply not open, which underscores how divided the general public remains about eating in restaurants in the time of a pandemic.
Submissions will be accepted through September 7 at 11:30 PST. All suggestions should address on-premises dining, not delivery or takeout.
Whatever winning solutions emerge from this could provide a blueprint for other cities around the country when it comes to addressing the upcoming winter. Chicago may have a reputation for harsh weather, but it’s hardly the only city in the U.S. to endure snow, ice, and sub-zero temperature. It wouldn’t be surprising if more cities launch their own challenges in the coming weeks in a collective effort to pull the restaurant industry through the changes and prevent even more from having to permanently close their doors.