Colder temps, outdoor heater codes create new worries for ailing NJ restaurant industry

Scott Patterson and Wendy Mansbridge have two Austrialian Labradoodles who do not like being left at home, so they search for restaurants with outdoor seating, even during the winter.

They have some advice: Put on a heavy coat. Wear layers. And consider bringing one of those inflatable seat cushions that fans bring to football games in December to avoid sitting on a metal chair.

Even so, "I think the heat lamps certainly would bring an additional level of comfort," Mansbridge, 45, said Thursday sitting outside of Robinson's Ale House in Red Bank.

Restaurants hammered by the impact of the coronavirus are setting up outdoor heaters, hoping they can meet fire codes and attract enough hardy souls to survive during the fall and winter.

But owners and local officals say it is a longshot. They renewed their call on Gov. Phil Murphy to increase indoor capacity from 25% to 50% — even as Murphy is expected to announce today more restrictions on restaurants to curtail an apparent second wave of COVID-19 cases.

NJ restaurants:36 Jersey Shore spots with heated outdoor dining

Heaters are shown in front of restaurants on Broad Street in Red Bank Thursday, November 5, 2020.  Restaurants are rolling out heaters to prepare for the cold weather., but not all towns are on board with the idea.

"It's very, very challenging," said Marilou Halvorsen, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, a trade group. "It's desperate. A lot of (restaurants) are closing. People that might stay open year-round are just shutting down."

On a warm fall days, as the Shore area enjoyed last week, outdoor dining seems like a perfect option. But behind the scenes, it's a juggling act.

Chris Wood, the owner of Woody's Grille, set up 14 heaters outside his Sea Bright restaurant and six heaters outside his Tinton Falls restaurant. They cost upwards of $350 to $400 each.

He said he needed to follow the fire code, which can get complicated and expensive. New Jersey, for example, prohibits the use of "portable outdoor gas-fired heating appliances" inside tents or canopies.

That means the portable propane heaters, known as "patio heaters" that many restaurants have been using in outdoor areas, are not allowed inside a closed tent. 

Restaurants opening:Arooga's finally opening Howell restaurant after being frozen by pandemic

Heaters are shown in front of Catch19 on Broad Street in Red Bank Thursday, November 5, 2020.  Restaurants are rolling out heaters to prepare for the cold weather., but not all towns are on board with the idea.

Wood said he contracted with a company to replace the propane tanks each week, which can cost $20 per tank.

But relying on outdoor heaters alone doesn't make for a stable business. Once the temperature dips below 45 degrees, Wood wonders if customers will continue to show up.

"Right now I think all the restaurants are playing the weather game," Wood said. "Basically this time of year you've got to make hay while the sun is shining, literally."

Few industries have been hit as hard by the pandemic's financial damage as the restaurant business. Allowed to resume outdoor dining last June, New Jersey restaurants have scrambled to set up tables and tents wherever they can find space.

As the coronavirus cases dwindled throughout the summer, Murphy re-opened indoor dining in early September, but limited it to 25% capacity.

Heaters are shown in front of Catch19 on Broad Street in Red Bank Thursday, November 5, 2020.  Restaurants are rolling out heaters to prepare for the cold weather., but not all towns are on board with the idea.

With winter on the way, restaurants have looked for ways to make dining outdoors more comfortable. And they are occasionally running into problems.

Monica Rivoli-Hmielewski, owner of Riv's Toms River Hub, said on a social media site that she was selling three stand-up heaters for $150 each because the town wouldn't allow them.

Toms River officials said state fire codes prohibit propane-powered heaters inside enclosed tents because they present a health and safety hazard.

"I get it, I feel for people," Kevin Esposito, chief inspector with Toms River's Bureau of Fire Prevention, said. "I'm not trying to make their lives difficult, but I have to enforce the code."

There are other options. Toms River Mayor Maurice "Mo" Hill Jr. said electric heaters, or heat blowers hooked up to a gas or propane tank located outside a tent, are allowed, but they can cost as much as $1,000, not to mention additional costs for electrical wiring.

Some restaurants in Toms River, including BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse on Hooper Avenue, and Teresa's Osaka Japanese Restaurant on Route 37, have either been approved or have submitted paperwork for installation of portable heaters in their dining tents.

But for others, the heating system under a tent could be cost prohibitive, Hill said.

"If they have to go that route, it's going to be difficult for a lot of restaurants," he said. 

Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, said the Division of Fire Safety is evaluating new products and alternatives but needs to ensure they are safe.

Heaters are shown in front of restaurants on Broad Street in Red Bank Thursday, November 5, 2020.  Restaurants are rolling out heaters to prepare for the cold weather., but not all towns are on board with the idea.

"It is the intent of the Division to ensure that outdoor dining is done safely and in a code-compliant manner while at the same time working with business owners to meet their needs," she said.

As coronavirus cases spike again, though, Murphy is expected to announce new restrictions, including ordering restaurants to stop indoor service at 10 p.m.

With prospects for another stimulus tied up in Washington, D.C., Asbury Park Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn said she fears some restaurants will be forced out of business, since many do not have the outdoor space to accommodate a tent, or the money to properly heat it. 

Quinn instead had hoped Murphy would increase indoor dining capacity to 50%, adding she dines out at least once a week and feels safe eating inside with the COVID-19 safety protocols followed by city restaurants. 

"Who could survive on 25%?" asked Quinn. "Maybe I’m missing it … but is there evidence that this (COVID-19) is manifesting specifically in restaurants?" 

With coronavirus cases rising once again, it seems unlikely that Murphy will loosen indoor dining restrictions.

"We're working on making sure that we’ve got a right balance between strategic, scalpel-like actions and some broader actions that we will almost certainly take sooner than later," Murphy said at a press conference Friday.

For now, restaurants likely will need to pin their hopes this winter on take-out, delivery, and customers like Wendy Mansbridge and Scott Patterson, who sat outside at Robinson's Ale House with their dog, Winston.

They would bundle up even before there were heat lamps, mainly so they could bring their dogs with them.

It's not always ideal; their food tends to get colder faster, they said.

But Mansbridge, who is originally from Montreal, Canada and has a wardrobe well-suited for the cold, says that with COVID-19 still a threat, she'd sooner eat outside than in.

"If it's warm enough I think we'll just do it," she said. If "my food doesn't get crazy cold and I'm comfortable …I for one would say, 'Let's go every night.'"

Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy for 20 years. He can be reached at mdiamond@gannettnj.com.

Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 36 years.  She's also passionate about the Shore's storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, 732-643-4050, jmikle@gannettnj.com.