When San Francisco officials first announced that bars could reopen for outdoor seating in June, Keith Wilson knew that his sports bar, the Boardroom, would need more than drafts and flat-screen TVs to draw a crowd. The bar has access to a decent-size sidewalk and parking spaces that, with a little table Tetris, can fit 40 people under social distancing guidelines. But “the summer in San Francisco is vicious,” Wilson told me recently. “We get such a strong breeze, and it can be so foggy and overcast and cold.” He’s made plans to order beanies and sweatshirts with the bar’s logo in case customers want to purchase some outerwear on the spot. But the items he’s really relying on are heat lamps.
September is here, and soon bars and restaurants across the country will be in the same position as the Boardroom. Outdoor drinking and dining is currently the safest way for establishments to host guests during the pandemic. Accordingly, demand for heat lamps has risen sharply, even in the warm summer months. While July is typically the slowest month for the heat-lamp industry—yes, there’s an industry—this year it rivaled even the traditionally busiest months of the year, according to Alfresco Heating owner Eric Kahn, whose company is based in Novato, California. Some restaurants are purchasing heaters for the first time, suggesting that the new landscape of dining on sidewalks, streets, parking lots, and wherever else you can fit a table and a few feet of distance will be with us for a good while.
Alfresco Heating has received so many installation orders that it’s adding staff to keep up. “If someone called up and said they wanted an installation, they’d be looking at two months for us to get there,” Kahn said. According to the Boston Globe, searches for heaters on Wayfair had increased more than 70 percent in August compared with last year.
The heater rush isn’t limited to the hospitality business. Sunglow Industries, a wholesale heater distributor in Newport News, Virginia, has seen a big uptick in installation orders for residential properties. “People aren’t going on vacation and spending a lot more time stuck at home,” Sunglow’s vice president, Graham Reed, said. “So they’re tackling improving outdoor spaces and putting more money into their homes rather than traveling.” Sunglow has also seen a surge in commercial orders; Reed says the company is constantly monitoring the status of lockdown orders around the East Coast in an attempt to predict fluctuations in demand.
Configuring heaters for a certain space can be tricky given social distance and fire safety guidelines. Though it’s certainly safer than indoor gatherings, crowding multiple tables around a single unit increases the risk of coronavirus transmission. Some restaurants are finding that they have to mix and match different kinds of heaters to maximize warmth while ensuring distance. Stand-alone patio heaters—the ones that look like street lamps—tend to be cheaper, foreign-made models that use propane tanks; you can easily find them at Home Depot or Lowe’s. Higher-tier heaters, which can emit heat over a larger radius, often require installation into a wall or ceiling, and have natural gas piped in. Wilson, owner of the Boardroom, relies on the installed heaters to be the main source of warmth and uses the stand-alones as a supplement on the outer edges of his dining area.
In San Francisco, the adaption of heaters was initially constrained by red tape. David O’Malley, head of operations for the restaurant Coqueta, was at first hesitant to install heaters because city regulations required Fire Department personnel to be present while a business operated them. But he says San Francisco eased the restrictions once it became clear outdoor dining would have to be the norm. “It’s a game-changer for us. Without these heaters, we would’ve never been able to seat lunch or dinner,” O’Malley said.
As has been the case with other swings in demand caused by the pandemic, there have been slowdowns and back orders while supply chains adjust. Lead times for orders from heating-lamp manufacturers to distributors have lengthened, and factories have had to stagger their shifts to keep workers safe. According to Kahn, owner of Alfresco, assembly parts from China seem to be slowing, though he’s unsure whether that’s a result of the pandemic or lingering effects of the trade war. Wilson said there was a mad dash among establishments in the Bay Area to buy heaters when lockdown measures were eased, so it took around six weeks before his sports bar could have any installed.
Since the coronavirus shows few signs of abating anytime soon, heat-lamp companies expect business to get even busier as establishments around the country prepare for cooler months. “It’s as psychological as it is anything,” said O’Malley, from Coqueta. “It makes the guests feel good. ‘Oh, look, they put a heater right beside my table.’ Is it the ultimate solution? No, but it’s as good as we’re going to get.”
“Good as it gets” leaves one final issue: The more heaters you cram on a restaurant patio, the fewer customers you can serve, and the harder it might be to make enough money to stay in business. While the Boardroom can currently seat 40 people alfresco, it will need a toastier setup for the colder months. Come winter, when it crams even more heaters outside, the bar will only be able to serve 18 people at a time.