Restaurant manager Rose Drys knows the look: the doubting, skeptical faces of customers offered a seat on the patio when it's as cold as ice cream outside.
"When we ask, 'Inside or out?' they look like, 'Yeah, right, I want to sit outside,' " says Drys, who runs Stella's Black Dog Tavern in downtown Plymouth.
"Sometimes it takes convincing to get people to believe they won't be cold. Once they sit out there and see how nice it feels, how nice everything looks outside in wintertime, they don't want to sit anywhere else."
Stella's began investing in a year-round patio about two years ago by adding a heater and glass door walls that go up when temps comes down. The warming features were stepped up last year with thick warm chair cushions that are used only in cold weather. Rugs were also rolled out. And on Nov. 20, a fireplace went in. It will be removed come summer.
Stella's is among Metro Detroit eateries that have decided to keep outdoor eating areas open year-round, and they are finding that winter patios are good for the customer experience and for their business bottom line.
For customers, it's a way to enjoy the sights of winter — skies, snowflakes and snow-trimmed trees, bundled-up pedestrians, street and twinkling lights — without feeling chilled. For business owners, it preserves precious seating, which can be cut by as much as half when outdoor tables go into winter storage.
As customers warm up to winterized dining rooms, restaurant owners, managers and chefs are seeing requests for outdoor seating are just as hot in the fall and winter as in summer and spring.
The fireplace and patio at Local Kitchen is a favorite spot for the Hughes family of Royal Oak. If they can't get a seat at the interior patio, nearest the fireplace, they go to the exterior patio.
"It very cozy and homey," says dad Brian Hughes. "The fireplace can get a little smoky sometimes, but it's like sitting around a campfire, the smell, the warmth. It's nice."
While fire pits and outdoor heaters are nothing new, the latest version brings more warming features. There are transparent, opaque and white plastic tents that can attach to the ground and keep the cold air out. There are personal heaters and dedicated room heaters as well as removable glass walls and permanent fireplaces. And building renovations can ensure that patios are protected from the elements.
At Social Kitchen & Bar in Birmingham, the patio, or The Via, is the place to be for many customers, says general manager Michael Gray. "People don't mind waiting for a table in The Via."
The Via is on the side of the building, just off the restaurant's main dining space, and looks onto the street. It's divided by glass partitions so people can see into the restaurant and covered with a tent/canopy that zips up to keep the wind out.
Above each table are electric heaters "that are extremely effective," and each is on its own individual breaker. The room has its own standard thermostat as well, Gray says.
"We actually get requests to sit out there no matter how cold it is outside," Gray says. "The perspective there is different. The people watching, the sights outside. … It's built-in entertainment."
The Via seats 48 and up to 60, if necessary. The space is popular as a rental for group gatherings, as is the case with other restaurants' outdoor patios.
"I think this is the trend. You never want to shrink dining space," Gray says.
Down the street, Café Via — a separate business — manages to maintain an outdoor patio that is warm and unusually elegant all year long. Several restaurants in Birmingham — The Bird & The Bread, Market and others — offer al fresco dining.
Red Crown in Grosse Pointe Park has enclosed its patio with a tent and uses large space heaters, as does Da Eduardo in Grosse Pointe Woods. Morning Glory in Grosse Pointe Farms adds a floor-to-ceiling glass wall each year to fully enclose its small patio. And when Bacco Ristorante in Southfield remodeled its patio, it added heaters and an insulated enclosure.
When the owners of Local Kitchen & Bar in Ferndale took over a restaurant space at 344 W. Nine Mile for renovations in 2012 "it was a prerequisite that we have a larger patio that be used any season," says developer and executive chef Rich Halberg.
The patio was changed to run the length of the building and made large enough to seat 100-120. It's divided into three sections moving in from the restaurant outward, from least exposed to most exposed. There is a fireplace between the indoor and outdoor spaces and clear plastic walls that can roll up and down.
Last year they decided to secure the walls to the ground to protect the tables from the cold, and the outdoor patio, which seats about 50, also has a warm air blowing furnace, says Halberg. It's well worth the investment, he says.
"The feeling of being indoors for winter, for our long winters, can make you feel claustrophobic," he says. "This lets people be able to sit outside and enjoy the outdoors. Plus, it gives us the space we absolutely have to have all year long."
Kim North Shine is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.