Ask George: What does it cost restaurants to heat their patios in the fall?

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What does it cost restaurants to heat their patios in the fall? —Sandy T., St. Louis

This is one of the subjects that many restaurant owners don’t like to discuss but still need to address, especially this year, when every place with outdoor patio heater seating is trying to eke out a few more weeks’ worth of patio revenue.

Drive past most any restaurant in the evening (and increasingly in the daytime), and you’ll see them: a forest of propane-fueled patio heaters, casting their spell of blue-orange warmth. Most are the common mushroom-shaped variety, but the more visually fetching, obelisk-shaped, pyramid-style heaters are common as well.

Scoring a table underneath a heater can be a godsend. Finding yourself too far from one can be a chilling experience. Restaurants do what they can to ensure that every spot is comfortable, but doing so often comes at a substantial cost.

At Olive + Oak, Clover and The Bee, and O+O Pizza, owner Mark Hinkle uses a combination of portable propane heaters and the more efficient wall-mounted variety fueled by natural gas. The additional expense is a necessary cost of doing business, he says, joking that he could use a propane cage “like the ones they have at Home Depot.”

In fact, Café Napoli already has one. “We have a rig in the back of restaurant that gets refilled weekly,” co-owner Kye Pietoso says of the tank cage. “The cost is $16 per tank, and each one lasts about eight hours. We spend about $380 a week on propane.”

Considering the size and popularity of Napoli’s patio, the cost is manageable. (In a recent story about how restaurateurs are preparing for colder days ahead, Pietoso told SLM that the restaurant is also looking into additional measures, such as plastic geodesic igloos.)

“The big issue this year is that every table needs their own heater because the tables are 6 feet apart,” he adds, “We have 20 heaters now. The mushroom type generate the most heat. The pyramidal ones with the vertical flame in the middle are more for ambiance, so we’re not using those at present.”

At Herbie’s, owner Aaron Teitelbaum recently covered most of the Maryland-facing patio with a rented tent that he secured several months ago.

“It costs us $75 every two days [$262 per week] to operate the portable heaters,” he says. It’s a cost that he says should be mitigated when forced-air propane heaters are installed next week. “They look like air conditioners. They’re thermostatically-controlled; the propane is refilled by the gas company, and they’re cheaper to operate, once you reconcile the additional cost.”

Brant Baldanza, managing partner at OG Hospitality Group, uses a series of ceiling-mounted natural gas heaters (also known as “valet heaters”) at The Corner Pub & Grill in Valley Park. The cost is $700 per month for about 120 hours of service time. “Patio space is rent-free space, so pre-COVID, the cost to heat those 10 tables was mitigated by the sales volume generated inside. With limited indoor seating, we have to look at whether that extra cost is justified.”

On DeMun Avenue, patio heaters are ablaze. There are 18 at present between Louie and the two levels at Sasha’s Wine Bar.

“We make it as comfortable as we can,” says Louie owner Matt McGuire. “Those outside tables are saving us right now, so we need them for as long as the weather allows.”

Alan Richman, owner of Sasha’s, agrees with his neighbor. “There is little choice,” he says of the necessity for heaters. He adds that he’s not sure they’re worth it, though. “We have 10 heaters, and each year we have to replace them. Add to that the three tanks of propane per week per heater, which is $600 per week. It’s hard to reconcile.”

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