Michigan eateries warm up to igloos for wintertime dining
Suttons Bay — It’s a frosty 26 degrees, the sky as gray as rain clouds and the woods deep with fresh snow, but the weather is hardly a concern for Bill Perkins, his wife, Lynne, and their friends, who are sipping this February afternoon away in the beer garden at Hop Lot Brewing Co.
Gloves tossed aside, Perkins and company are drinking al fresco — sort of. They’re chilling in an igloo, made out of plastic materials and covered in transparent plastic. Comfortable in wicker chairs, they’re gathered around a wicker-glass coffee table, their pints newly refilled and a small electric heater warming the hut.
“This is a pretty nice place to be,” said Bill Perkins, who lives a short walk away in Suttons Bay and is nursing an IPA called Uncle Green Guy. “You still have to dress like you’re outside but it’s not uncomfortable. If you get eight friends in here, it warms up pretty quickly.”
Igloos like those at Hop Lot have become a hot commodity in the late fall and winter at bars and restaurants across Michigan and other northern states. From downtown Detroit to the suburbs to Petoskey and Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, igloos are popping up like mushrooms sprouting on a forest floor.
“It’s a fascinating idea and a great way to generate more business,” said Carl Borchgrevink, director of the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University.
Borchgrevink recently noticed Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo has outdoor domes.
”It’s especially great in Michigan where we don’t get enough sun in the winter — it gets people outside," he said. "It’s good for your well-being. It’s fun and different.”
Borchgrevink sees no drawbacks, as long as establishments comply with local fire, safety and occupancy regulations.
Initially designed for home patios or as backyard greenhouses, the domes caught the attention of restaurants, bars and other businesses with large patios, roof tops, balconies or outdoor space that weren’t being used in the winter.
The weather-resistant, dome-shaped igloos began showing up a few years ago along the Thames and on rooftops in London as Europe embraced the temporary structures. The trend spread globally, with interest fueled by pictures on social media. Eventually, U.S. businesses took notice.
“The demand is high and growing both for household use and commercial use,” said Volkan Alevok, owner of Gardenigloo USA LLC, the company that sold the igloos to Hop Lot. A company in Istanbul manufactures the igloos sold in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
“When we advertised in the USA in the fall of 2016, we reached homeowners, but also we got the attention of hotels, restaurants, café owners,” he said. “Now, we can see our products at high-class hotel rooftops, wineries, amusement parks, breweries, cafés and at many restaurants located in northern states, mostly.”
The igloos cost about $850. There are other manufacturers of various types of igloos but Gardenigloo is the only company that sells ones that come in boxes with self-assembly guides, Alevok said. They can easily be dismantled and stored away in the summer.
Under the dome
In Northville, Deadwood Bar and Grill installed two igloos on its brick patio in November and they’ve been heavily booked ever since.
“They’ve done amazingly well,” said Rene Ross, the restaurant’s general manager. “We had no idea how popular they were going to be. It’s unbelievable how many reservations we’ve had since Thanksgiving.”
About 14 feet in diameter, the igloos are available for seating 10 times a day, in two-hour intervals, beginning at noon; the last seating is at 8:30 p.m. There is no deposit for the reservation, but guests are required to spend a minimum of $200 in food and beverage orders.
Deadwood offers full menu and bar service to igloo customers. The igloos, which can accommodate 10 people, are outfitted with wooden tables and chairs, like those found inside the restaurant.
The tables are covered with tablecloths and set with cloth napkins and silverware. Blankets, small candles and gloves add coziness. An electric heater eases the winter chill and a Bluetooth speaker enables guests to connect their iPhones for music.
“Every single customer that has been in the igloo has said it’s a wonderful idea,” Ross said. “They love to have the quiet space outside with family and friends. What better way to do something fun in the winter? You’re outside but you’re warm and cozy.”
The igloos, which were custom made by an American company, have generated more than 5,000 reservations this winter, boosting seasonal business 25 percent to 30 percent, Ross said.
They’ve been so successful that Deadwood is extending their use through Easter, but they will be redecorated to reflect spring, with plants and flowers. The company also is mulling adding them at its other locations: Camp Ticonderoga in Troy, and the Moose Preserve in Bloomfield Hills.
“People are already calling about next year,” she said.
In Rochester Hills, Clubhouse BFD initially installed a single igloo on its patio last fall. It was an immediate success, so the restaurant and bar added three more by mid-November.
The igloos, outfitted with lounge chairs or picnic tables, seated eight comfortably and Clubhouse BFD offered full menu and bar service.
“They were a huge hit,” said David Robinson, the restaurant’s general manager. “Our guests loved them and obviously they provided a revenue generator that we didn’t have in the past. Children loved them. They would see these plastic structures outside and their eyes would light up like they were at Disney World.”
Despite that success, Clubhouse BFD dismantled the igloos two weeks ago, after the city of Rochester Hills raised safety concerns about the huts.
The igloos did not meet safety-related code requirements, specifically in the event of fire; there were concerns about the zipper entrance and the plastic cover, said Scott Cope, the building, ordinance and facilities director for Rochester Hills. The city, he said, asked the restaurant to comply with the code or remove the structures.
“We’re looking out for the safety of customers who go into these structures. Our first concern is to make sure people are safe,” he said, adding the city is willing to take another look at any alternatives Clubhouse BFD pursues.
Said Robinson, “We understand the safety issues. We’re willing to do what we have to to have the igloos back next year. We know they’re a winner.”
Coming to Michigan
Hop Lot, just south of downtown Suttons Bay on Route 22, is believed to be among the first Michigan establishments to erect the portable igloos, setting them up for the first time in late November 2017.
“We didn’t invent the igloo. We just thought it would be a fun addition to our seating in the winter,” said Steve Lutke, who opened the popular brewery with his wife, Sarah, and brother, Drew, in 2015. “The response has been phenomenal. People are almost bummed if they can't get in one.”
The igloos have helped the brewery accommodate more guests in the fall and winter; its tasting room can handle just 40-45 people.
In the warm months, accommodate another couple hundred guests, and it’s not uncommon for the ¾-acre tract to be swarming with visitors playing outdoor games, dining at picnic tables or lingering by campfires.
The igloos have been a game-changer in the winter.
“We typically seat approximately 400 people in the igloos on Saturdays, maybe half that on Fridays and Sundays,” Steve Lutke said.
Available by reservation or walk-in for one hour, the igloos include full menu and bar service. No deposits are required.
The only issue Hop Lot has experienced is some trouble with the zipper-lined entrances. The constant wear-and-tear and frigid temperatures took their toll. Just recently, the brewery installed wood-frame entrances at each dome.
Drew Lutke said the transparent bubbles amplify the northern Michigan ambiance people seek while they’re visiting the region.
“You feel like you’re out drinking in the woods,” he said.
That feeling of relaxation and sense of outdoors wasn’t lost on Jim Mahaney, a part-time ski patroller from Holland who joined Bill Perkins and his wife in the igloo, his first introduction to the geometric domes.
“The igloos are a great idea,” he said, joking he should have worn his long underwear. “They get you inside on comfortable seating while still being outside. They’re a great place to gather with friends.”
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.