(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)
It’s been a tough year for many small businesses, particularly restaurants and retailers. But they’ve been doing their best to survive, despite all the restrictions. In my home city of Philadelphia, many restaurants have moved their operations outdoors – and some with success. Tables are filled. And just last night I walked by an entire spin class going on outside a local fitness center. People are doing their best to adapt.
That’s good news and I’m happy for them. But there’s a looming problem: winter is coming! Can these businesses keep operating even as temperatures begin to drop?
“For sure,” a friend who owns a diner told me recently. “As long as we can get more heaters. Know where I can find a few?”
The pandemic has created some booming markets in games and puzzles, cleaning products, technology tools, pools, organic cat food and just about anything you can buy online. When the pandemic began people were desperate for toilet paper. But now there’s a craze affecting many desperate business owners: outdoor heaters.
“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,” a Chicago restaurant owner told Eater Chicago. “It doesn’t make sense financially to spend $8,000 on four heaters.”
It’s not just restaurants that need the heat. My local fitness center wants to continue outdoor classes as long as possible and a zoo in Oregon wants them to keep visitors coming. (“After getting open and figuring out how to operate safely through Covid times, having outdoor space every year, we always have to think ahead,” Portland zoo co-owner Mark Miller told local TV station WGME). Many homeowners are putting in outdoor heaters on their patios as they plan for a winter of potential lockdowns. All of this means good news if you’re in the business of making, supplying, servicing and selling outdoor heaters.
The Boston Globe has reported a 70% increase in heater searches on Wayfair’s website and the phrase “patio heaters” has its highest Google search volume, according to a report in USA Today, which also provides a handy list of places where you can try your luck finding one.
“We’re ordering as much as possible,” Josh Rookstool, the director of sales for Sunheat outdoor heaters, which are stocked by Wayfair and Home Depot, told the Marker. “However, there are still major backups in production.” Rockstool’s company says that sales have increased more than 400% this year. And it’s not just small businesses selling heaters that are profiting. Companies that provide propane, accessories and repairs are also seeing enormous increases in demand.
Can’t find an outdoor heater for your small business? Maybe you should consider what one restaurant owner is doing: building mini igloos for your customers. Yes, that’s right. Igloos. David Lahousse, who for the past 20 years has owned Kay’s Restaurant in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, has added two greenhouse-style igloos to his parking lot and plans to add eight more. The igloos, which cost about $1,400 each keeps the temperature 20-30 degrees warmer than the outside, with one party inside at a time.
“I want to make it a winter wonderland, you know?” he told local news station WPRI. “It’s not all about the money for me. I want people to have these jobs. I don’t want to lay anyone off.”