Southwest Detroit restaurants to get all-season 'luminarias' for outdoor dining

Fifteen all-weather dining structures shaped like lanterns will pop up outside of Southwest Detroit restaurants in early 2021, thanks in part to a $50,000 grant from Hudson-Webber Foundation

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

As outdoor dining continues to evolve during this pandemic, some of the restaurants in Southwest Detroit are getting unique to their community: vented and enclosed structures called luminarias. 

Designed as a nod to traditional Mexican paper lanterns often used around Christmastime, 15 of the customizable, five-sided structures are being installed outside of restaurants throughout the Detroit neighborhood. 

Detroit-based AptumBuild Solutions and their all-weather, lantern-shaped  outdoor dining structure, with owner and designer Bill Schofield, outside the manufacturing facility, Disenos Ornamental Ironwork in Detroit, Michigan on December 18, 2020.

Armando's Mexican Restaurant on Vernor Highway will be among the first to receive a luminaria, which are being erected later this month through February. 

"We're so happy to be working with the Southwest Detroit Business Association to launch it, we're one of the first restaurants to have it in Southwest Detroit," said Cecilia Benedict Hernandez of Armando's. "I think it's going to be something special to Southwest Detroit. It's not an igloo, but it's the same concept, and it's kind of custom to our culture."

She says the longstanding Mexican restaurant — which currently offers carryout daily — has some outdoor seating, but it's too cold to use it right now. They'll take reservations for the luminarias once they are installed later this month. 

"I think it will be something for people to still have that feeling of being with your own little group, isolated in a safer environment," she said. "I think it will be a plus." 

Made of steel and plexiglass, the 11-foot-tall shelters are designed with Michigan winter in mind, said Bill Schofield of AptumBuild Solutions, which crafted them at Diseños Ornamental Iron in Southwest. They're also made so the restaurant owners and staff can assemble, relocate or store them without the need for specialized tools or a heavy-lifting crew. In spite of this flexibility, they're still more substantial than the many domes and tents restaurants are using now to serve diners outside. 

"As a customer the first thing you're going to notice is they are quiet, you're in a solid structure," said Schofield, adding that there are exhaust fans and vents inside so the pods can be aired out between parties. "You're not sitting in plastic. It's warm. You can see out of it ... we didn't want to create just a box." 

Southwest Detroit Business Association vice president of programs and compliance Jennifer Gomez says what began as a functional solution to the area's restaurants are now a "signature branding opportunity and attraction." 

"This exciting program will provide a lifeline to area businesses, helping owners recover a portion of lost revenue while also creating a one-of-a-kind dining experience that can only be found in Southwest Detroit," Gomez said in a press release Tuesday. 

The luminarias have customizable panels and colorful lights, to add to the vibrancy of the neighborhood, which is known for its many fantastic murals. 

Detroit-based AptumBuild Solutions and their all-weather, lantern-shaped  outdoor dining structures, with owner and designer Bill Schofield, outside the manufacturing facility, Disenos Ornamental Ironwork in Detroit, Michigan on December 18, 2020.

"Each restaurant has their own story to tell," said Schofield. "With our structures, we have an assortment of over 32 different powder coating colors that every restaurant can select from to create their own branding image for their restaurant. It's a really neat feature that allows the restaurant a lot of adaptability and flexibility on how they use these structures."

The AptumBuild Solutions specializes in simple-assemble buildings for those that need shelter, such as refugees and those displaced by war or famine. All they need is a few visual cues and a rubber mallet, he says. 

"That's where this original concept started," he said. "I spent years refining it to get to a point where anybody in any region can provide shelter for themselves if the product can get to them. Whether it's here in the United States, a restaurant owner or a family over in Iraq or African, not everyone is a construction worker ... that can build themselves a structure if you drop off a pile of wood and some tools. We designed a project that is easy to assemble by anyone in the world." 

The dining shelters AptumBuild Solutions built for Southwest Detroit would retail for $5,500-$6,000, but thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Hudson-Webber Foundation, the businesses will only have to pay a fraction of that for each luminaria. 

“Southwest Detroit Business Association’s Luminaries project supports local restaurants by affording seating optionality that will help businesses navigate the current health pandemic in the short-term, and also contributes to a longer-term placemaking strategy for the neighborhood," said Hudson-Webber Foundation President and CEO Melanca Clark in a media alert about the project. "The Hudson-Webber Foundation is honored to have SDBA as a partner and to contribute to this project.” 

Disenos Ornamental Ironwork fabricator Anthony Hernandez works on a top cap for the outdoor dining structure by AptumBuild Solutions in Detroit.

Additionally, AptumBuild donated their design, engineering and architectural services to the project and Diseños Ornamental Iron also reduced its fees. AptumBuild Solutions and Diseños both have deep roots in the neighborhood; Schofield says his family has roots in the area dating back 80 years. 

He said he and his team were motivated to help the restaurants survive this pandemic but also the long term, and give them a durable product that will last years beyond this winter season.

"We give them a 20-plus-year solution that is flexible all year round, decorative enough that it can be used all year round, not just an igloo in the wintertime, and that can be modified season by season if not week by week during sports season to meet the needs of what they want to put out for their brand," he said. 

More:EastEats outdoor dining 'experience' to continue into 2021

More:Bedrock offers outdoor dining, free parking and more with 'Decked Out Detroit'

Twitter: @melodybaetens