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As Restaurants Prepare for Winter Outdoor Dining, Convincing Customers Remains a Challenge

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As more states are allowing the hospitality business to reopen in varying capacities, restaurants, particularly those in cooler climates, are hastily prepping for a winter al fresco. Heat lamps are selling out and restaurants are attempting to build structures like insulated bubbles, all while encouraging customers to layer up under parkas and blankets. But all these preparations may be for nought if people aren’t convinced that they want to eat outside. To fill seats, restaurants must at least figure out this basic-but-important challenge in appealing to diners: keeping the food warm.

Lester Gouvia, owner of Norma G’s in Detroit, recently made this point in the online publication Crain’s Detroit, saying, “I have to be concerned that if that space isn’t heated well enough, that food is going to go cold very quickly, and that’s not the experience I want for our customer, and I don’t think a customer wants to pay for that experience.” As restaurants continue to struggle, the reality of cold food has become a pressing concern.

The unpredictability of the weather has always been an issue for restaurants that offer outdoor dining, regardless of the season. Many a night have I run under an awning and watched rain soak my dinner as I wait for a freak storm to pass. But in previous years, that was always a minor personal calculation to make for the enjoyment of a summer breeze — if it wasn’t nice out, I could always sit inside. Now, the stakes are higher. Restaurants and workers are trying to make up for time and money lost at the beginning of the pandemic, as rents and mortgages must be met, and with social-distancing protocols, there are only so many tables they can fill. According to the Washington Post, “Restaurateurs are expected to lose $240 million this year.” No one can afford to give up a table, even when it’s surrounded by feet of snow.

In areas where indoor dining is available, people are reluctant to take advantage of the cover and space. “People just don’t want to sit inside that much,” said Mindy Friedler, co-owner of Fiya, a restaurant with a twenty table patio, in Chicago. The wariness comes with good reason; according to a recent study, adults who contracted COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant in the preceding weeks. The study did not differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining, though the CDC says indoor dining makes for a higher risk of COVID-19 spread.

Restaurants have typically used space heaters to extend the life of their outdoor patios. The heaters, depending on density of the space, can keep both customers and food warm in slightly chilly weather. Friedler said one issue with keeping up the quality of dining outdoors is that, with more demand, heaters are becoming harder to find. And while ensuring customers are comfortable and are being served warm food is a priority, she’s also concerned about staff. “I can’t expect my staff to bundle up and run out there,” she said. She’s working on ways to make sure people are comfortable outside for as long as possible, and has thought about changing how service is done so food is delivered quickly. But if you’re worried about your food getting cold? “You just got to eat fast.”

Juanma Calderon, co-owner of Celeste in Somerville, Massachusetts, recognizes that hastily scarfing down your meal can greatly detract from the joy and purpose of dining out. He brought up an article in Boston Magazine in which writer Scott Kearnan implored, “If you would have braved the freezing cold for a Patriots game, you should do it to save local restaurants, too.” Calderon, recognizing it as a clever comparison, still argues that “[at a football game] I’m drinking beers and eating hot dogs. It’s not the same if you go out for a romantic or business dinner.” At Celeste, they’ve put out candles and heaters on the outdoor patio, but as it gets colder, it’s likely diners are just going to have to move inside, where the restaurant has expanded into an upstairs space for better distancing. That, and Celeste is bracing for more takeout and delivery orders.

As someone who avoids football games for precisely the reasons Calderon outlines (along with…every other reason), the idea of eating outside as the temperatures dip is, forgive me, chilling. Obviously, diners have gladly adapted to many of the conditions — whether it’s spaced-out tables or trying to pull up their masks any time a server comes over — in order to support their favorite restaurants In These Times. And in the summer, if you let yourself forget about the pandemic for a second, it might even be relaxing to eat out. But once it’s cold out, there’s really no way to pretend that this is anything close to replicating what has historically made dining out enjoyable. Outdoor heaters have dwindling returns with every gust of icy wind. There’s no such thing as a parka for your steak. And a candle on the table might actually make things worse, by suggesting the presence of warmth without giving any. Dining out risks becoming something to be endured, bundled up and hunched over, rather than enjoyed,

The struggle to make outdoor dining bearable is more proof of the limits of the half-measures taken by our government to protect restaurants throughout the pandemic. Paycheck Protection Program loans were paltry, and another stimulus bill isn’t coming any time soon. There has been no cancellation of rent or mortgages. So restaurants have to rely on the support of the individual, who now must brave increasingly uncomfortable, unenjoyable, and risky conditions in order to eat out. And diners will do it, because everyone wants their favorite restaurants to survive. Get ready to eat fast. Or maybe stick to takeout with a big tip.

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The Eater Guide on How to Help During the Crisis

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Not all that long ago it seemed like if the pandemic weren’t exactly over by now, then at least the worst of it would be. But the summer didn’t make things any simpler. Cases continued to spread, and fires and hurricanes ravaged the West and Gulf Coast. As the weather turned colder, more states began allowing indoor activities and face-to-face school. As a result, the virus appears to be surging once more. It is increasingly clear that not only will thousands more Americans likely die as a direct result of COVID-19 by the end of 2020, but the mass misery of the economic devastation it has unleashed — suffering disproportionately endured by Black and Latinx communities — will not lift anytime soon. 

Benefits like the federal $600 a week unemployment expansion ran out or contracted for more than 25 million Americans in July and the federal government has failed to agree on the terms of a new aid package. Organizations that provide food and housing assistance to low-income people across the country, already strained by the last several months of the pandemic and the government’s appallingly incompetent — and at times malevolent — response, are scrambling to meet a tidal wave of need. As roughly 40 percent of restaurants on the brink of closing forever, programs that aid people in the food industry are also seeking further support so they can continue to provide assistance to worker who remain unemployed or underemployed. Groups representing Indigenous communities, undocumented immigrants, farmworkers, and people of color are also mobilizing to get assistance to marginalized people and lay a foundation for a more resilient food system — because while it’s an extraordinary time of need, it’s also not new. 

Hunger and poverty have always been the U.S.’s most shameful open secrets. Despite being the wealthiest country in the world, as of 2018 more than 13 percent of people in the U.S. lived below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau, while a full 78 percent of U.S. workers lived paycheck to paycheck. The pandemic and its economic fallout have put those statistics into ever starker relief, as the nation’s working class and its poorest residents have faced the largest health burden from the virus. Several studies have estimated that pandemic-related job losses and increased food costs have roughly doubled food insecurity in the U.S., and No Kid Hungry estimates that one quarter of children around the country could face food insecurity in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus. 

In this guide, Eater has identified a range of programs, organizations, and charities fighting hunger, developing sustainable food networks, and providing support to the roughly 31 million people who are unemployed or are working less than they’d like to be due to this global medical disaster. These are places that are stepping in to do work in their communities where governments and elected officials have left people behind. Collected here are opportunities for giving and volunteering in and around the United States and its territories, at both the national and the local level, as well as in the U.K. Editors have done their best to vet the charities included here, but it’s always important to make sure when you give money or time that the organization you’re supporting aligns with your values and has a transparent, proven track record. If you only have time or resources to give, give it, but monetary donations — especially those offered over an extended period — can be even more impactful because charities tend to know where the greatest need is. If you’ve chosen a group and aren’t sure what’s the best way to help, it’s worth reaching out and asking.

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Trump Teases an ‘EPIC’ Election Night Party at His D.C. Hotel Despite Capacity Limits

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Despite D.C.’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, President Donald Trump’s campaign has teased plans to host a party for election night on Tuesday, November 3, at the Trump International Hotel downtown. Fundraising emails from Donald Trump Jr. include details on a “sweepstakes” to fly a supporter to D.C. for a party described in all-caps as “EPIC,” “ELECTRIC,” and “INCREDIBLE.”

Under D.C.’s Phase 2 reopening restrictions, mass gatherings are capped at a maximum capacity of 50 people. Restaurants are still limited to half-capacity seating with no standing and no countertop service from bartenders. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says she wasn’t aware of plans for the party until Monday, October 26, Washingtonian reports.

The location of the election night party is unclear, but the opulent hotel has multiple ballrooms and event spaces. The hotel includes a location of celebrity chef David Burke’s BLT Prime steakhouse. Lobby-level bar Benjamin serves $23 glasses of sangria and $120 seafood towers. Nearby, more affordable pub Harry’s has already seen pro-Trump crowds openly flouting mask requirements and other protocols meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Trump has consistently downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. After he survived a case, Trump told Americans, “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

On election night four years ago, the recently opened hotel was the site of an impromptu and raucous gathering for supporters watching the numbers roll in on large TVs framing its gold bar. The controversial Pennsylvania Avenue hotel near the White House has been sold out for weeks on and around Election Day at rates going for $1,200 a night, the Associated Press reports.

The fine print in the sweepstakes notes the campaign can move the date of the trip and the location of the hotel stay at its discretion. The prize also includes a photo op with Trump. The supposedly randomly chosen winner, who is subject to a background check, will be responsible for all ground transportation, meals, and all other expenses during the duration of the trip.

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Eater Staffers Pick Their Favorite Instant Pot Recipes

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Now that we are over the sourdough-and-regrowing-scallions part of the pandemic, but in no way over the actual pandemic, we must prepare for The Hunkering. Every winter is a time for stews, roasts, and hearty pasta bakes, but this winter it feels extra important, both because most of us are going to be indoors way more than any previous season, and have completely lost the energy to do anything but throw a bunch of stuff in a pot. Which obviously means it’s time to break out the Instant Pots.

A few years ago it seemed like electric multicookers, especially the Instant Pot, may have just been a fad. But the fact that in one appliance you can cook anything from soup to pudding to bread makes it pretty ideal for cooking during quarantine fatigue. Eater’s staffers rounded up our favorite go-to Instant Pot recipes, perfect for the many nights when you’re in the mood for something delicious, but you know, wanting to do as little as possible to make it happen. And as Eater Dallas and Eater Houston editor Amy McCarthy noted, you could always go with “just some fucking chicken breasts,” and let the machine do the rest.


Beef barley soup: This is the first that comes to mind. It’s basically a textbook version of this classic soup, and perfect for chilly weather. It’s low-lift, reasonably quick to put together, and freezes well. — Missy Frederick, cities director

Dakbokkeumtang: I make this recipe when I’m craving a savory chicken dish with the volume turned up. All that delicious flavor comes from the sauce. It’s a perfect balance of sweet and spicy from gochujang and sugar. Doenjang and oyster sauce adds another layer of depth. Typically to make this Korean comfort dish, you would need to watch over the pot, making sure that the chicken pieces are soaking up the sauce. But everything is done in the Instant Pot, so the result is fall-off-the-bone, tender chicken with potatoes that just break apart with no effort at all. Also, who doesn’t love a dump-everything-and-press-the-button recipe?! — James Park, social media manager

Mac and cheese: I make this one once a week when I’m lazy and cooking sounds hard. I use whatever cheese is in the fridge, add a little brown mustard to the mix, and usually skip the milk or add it at the very end. Would suggest you grate the mozzarella or it becomes a blob. — Brenna Houck, editor at Eater Detroit

Chinese poached whole chicken: Basically, I get a whole chicken every week, and I got tired of roasting it. This recipe is a really easy — not entirely foolproof, but a good enough way to poach a chicken whole in about 40 to 50 minutes, with not too much work on my part. You can use it specifically as white-cut chicken over rice with, say, a ginger scallion sauce, but just as often I pull the meat off the carcass and use it for meals throughout the week. Two caveats: You really do need an instant-read thermometer to tell when it’s done, and I find it’s much better to salt the chicken 24 hours in advance (I use the method in Salt Fat Acid Heat), so it has enough taste. And after poaching the chicken and pulling off the meat, I often toss the carcass right back into its cooking liquid, cook it on manual for another 60 minutes, and end up with a bunch of chicken stock. — Meghan McCarron, special correspondent

Kosha mangsho: This is a traditional Bengali goat or lamb stew in a heavily spiced, yogurt gravy, and it’s intensely rich and comforting. This recipe uses a pressure cooker to save time, but on the offchance you landed on this page and don’t have an Instant Pot or the like, you can still just simmer it in a large pot. — Jaya Saxena, staff writer

Lemongrass coconut chicken: The sauce is unbelievably tasty for just a few ingredients and it comes together so quickly. The labor to flavor ratio makes it one of my go-tos when I get bored with cooking or can’t be bothered to put in much effort. It’s also great over rice or any other grain. — Brittanie Shey, Eater Houston and Eater Dallas associate editor

Basic chicken noodle soup: I make a basic chicken noodle soup in the Instant Pot probably every week in the winter: The base recipe is two chicken breasts, a carton and a half of broth, a few cups (I eyeball it) roughly chopped diced celery, carrot, and onion, and whatever spices you want. Cook everything together on high pressure for 25 mins. You can quick-release the pressure and remove the chicken breasts, and shred them — while you’re shredding, set the pot’s saute function so the broth remains boiling and add egg noodles. Once the noodles are cooked, dump the shredded chicken back in and you’re done! This is perfect because frozen chicken works just as well (and at the same cook time), and you can experiment with any leafy greens at the end (throw them in when you add the noodles) and any noodle types you want. — Erin DeJesus, lead editor, Eater.com

Pork chile verde: This recipe is very good; I found it last year when I had a truckload of tomatillos from my garden. It is a great comfort food and works well as stew or tacos. — Brenna Houck, Editor at Eater Detroit

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