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Huntley restaurants prepare for the latest COVID-19 challenge — cold weather

Local businesses rely on innovation to keep doors open to diners

Large heaters will allow the BBQ King Smokehouse’s Huntley location to keep its patio area open until the first snowfall of the season, the restaurant’s general manager said.

These kinds of adaptations are common as changing weather ushers in a new challenge for Huntley’s bars and restaurants, which were just beginning to adjust to a new normal of relying on outdoor dining to boost record-low sales.

“We’ll ride it out as long as we can with outdoor seating,” general manager Collin Beck said Tuesday. “If people want to sit outside and it’s a little cold out, you’d be surprised, they come in winter jackets and stuff, so we’ll see.”

After that, the restaurant will move its operations indoors and will rely on takeout and delivery orders to balance out the revenue lost as a result of indoor capacity limits, Beck said.

“Some people just don’t feel safe coming indoors, which is completely fine,” he said. “We’re going to offer to-go service and delivery so they can still enjoy our food however they feel comfortable.”

BBQ King is fortunate to have a large, two-level indoor space where they can seat a good number of people while still adhering to the state’s safety guidelines, Beck said.

Back in May, the staff of Pub 47 built an outdoor eating area in the parking spaces in front of their building to be able to open safely in Phase 3 of the governor’s Restore Illinois plan.

Once the weather becomes untenable for outside eaters, that patio area will likely be dismantled and stored away, Pub 47 manager Jordan Hartman said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

The restaurant briefly considered constructing a tent over the area to prolong outdoor dining, but they are hopeful their customers will be amenable to dining inside instead, Hartman said. They too are preparing for an influx of carry-out and delivery orders to accommodate some of their regular customers who are older and more wary of the infection risk.

The village of Huntley recently extended its temporary outdoor dining program to continue through April 2021, said Melissa Stocker, marketing and recruitment specialist for the village’s economic development department.

Businesses across Huntley and the rest of McHenry County have invested in outdoor heaters, erected tents or constructed more complex, weather resistant outdoor eating areas, McHenry County Economic Development Corporation President Jim McConoughey said.

“We have some of the most creative entrepreneurs in the entire region that are experimenting with how to keep their patrons warm and how to keep them safe and out of the elements,” he said.

This kind of innovation, creativity and flexibility will be crucial to businesses trying to survive this next chapter of the coronavirus pandemic, McConoughey said. However, food businesses also need to make sure that they have strong advertising and a solid online presence so that they can stay afloat once foot traffic slows and more residents opt to dine at home.

Preparing for a return to takeout might also mean altering menu items for some restaurants as it is essential that business owners consider all aspects of the customer experience, he said.

In short, no one likes melted ice cream or soggy tacos.

BBQ King plans to offer deals to incentivize customers to order food online, Beck said. The restaurant is hoping to avoid using a third-party delivery service and increase staff retention by repurposing employees as delivery drivers.

Pub 47 has many loyal customers, but Hartman said his staff are still nervous about the possibility that indoor dining could be more heavily restricted or banned altogether if McHenry County’s health region experiences an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Looking at businesses in Region 1 – which runs the northwestern portion of the state from DeKalb and Rockford to the Quad Cities – where the state has imposed additional COVID-19 restrictions to mitigate a recent surge in infections has made those concerns all the more real, he said.

“It’s a matter of keeping an eye on that and seeing how those businesses are trying to survive and then looking at our customers to see whether people would be willing to adapt with those added regulations,” Hartman said. “Everyone’s just kind of nervous.”

With seven months of grueling revenue shortfalls, many businesses are already on the brink of collapse and surviving the winter months is sure to be difficult.

“The industry as a whole has just got beat up during this time,” Beck said. “It’s a tough time, a difficult time for everybody and we just try to continue, you know, business as normal, but it’s like what is normal right now?”

Hartman said he hopes the state and federal government will recognize the need to provide continued relief for small businesses.

Currently, the second round of Illinois’ Business Interruption Grant program is still open and accepting applications to help business owners with the cost of adhering to safety guidelines.

The McHenry County Economic Development Corporation has consolidated information for local business owners to dispel some of the confusion around tricky grant applications and stimulus bill talks ripe with legal jargon, McConoughey said.

“I’m worried and all of us are worried that this is going to be a long recovery and we have to set up the systems to solve problems as quickly as we can,” he said.

Up-to-date information and resources for the county’s businesses can be found on the Resume McHenry County website.

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