The Latest Blow to Restaurants? A Heater Shortage

Patio dining remains the main source of customers as weather turns cold

As the restaurant industry continues to grapple with COVID-19 regulations, lukewarm attendance, and a rattled market, the approaching winter already poses a new threat it can ill afford: a shortage of affordable outdoor heating units.

While this appears to be a crippling blow for that industry, it marks a potential boon for HVAC appliance manufacturers. Patio heaters from Grainger, for example, generally run from $200-$300/per unit on average. Companies like AEI Corporation, the Irvine, Calif.-based manufacturer of specialty heating products, already have a head start.

Fall officially started Tuesday. Although its getting proportionately warmer the world over, places like Montreal, Tokyo, New York City, the United Kingdom, and our hometown of Chicago still prepare for cold-ish weather beginning now.

In Chicago, Eater reported last month that restaurateurs are finding many places to be out of stock when it comes to outdoor portable, patio furnaces. (See article: Slate and Eater San Francisco reported similar stories) This circumstance is different this year because restaurants don’t have the same option they used to of evenly dispersing customers throughout both indoor and outdoor seating areas. With capacities limited and spreading more likely indoors, heated patios look like the best option for the football-watching, large gathering type crowds common duing the 40 to 60 degree weather periods before it gets bitter cold.

The ever-creative industry has found potential stopgap solutions: heated outdoor seating areas such as tents and yurts. In New York City, this ushered in discussion of the heat-lamp-availability problem; ultimately forcing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hand in late September to change the rules on which appliances were permissible outdoors.

DeBlasio, who also recently extended the overall outdoor dining rule throughout the entire winter, ordered a partial reversal September 25 to a rule that the the use of propane heat lamps for commercial application was illegal in New York City. With that, lamps will be permitted only on sidewalks not where streets are closed off. It still remains, the New York Times reported in late September, that HVAC manufacturers seem to have a tight hold on availability.

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