As a result, recipients across the city are developing elaborate plans with fire pits and blankets to keep their customers coming — and outdoors — through a dire winter, when experts fear cold weather will drive people inside and contribute to a surge in the coronavirus.
But other business owners, namely those east of the Anacostia River, are approaching colder months without any extra support.
D.C. officials say they have already exhausted funds from the program and will release an updated list of grant recipients once a week as paperwork processes. Forty restaurants are on the program’s waitlist, according to the city.
The first wave of winter grant funding comes at a pivotal point for the local economy. Business owners are deciding how to approach their offseason with the pandemic still raging and without federal stimulus. It also comes as some local establishments have boarded up windows and temporarily collapsed outdoor dining arrangements in preparation for potential unrest after the presidential election.
“There is a lot of uncertainty right now between the weather, the election and potential disruption on the streets,” said Constantine Stavropoulos, chief executive and owner of the Tryst Trading Co., which operates the restaurants Tryst, the Diner, Open City and the Coupe. “So the winter program is good in the sense that it helps us continue. It is our survival right now.”
Stavropoulos said sales across his four restaurants are down more than 80 percent compared with the same time last year. He briefly considered shuttering for the winter, which he conceded is “probably the smart economic decision,” but decided to forge ahead and apply for the grants to support his staff and keep serving his neighborhood customers.
He has received grants to boost outdoor venues for all four of his restaurants and hopes to assemble fire pits, propane heaters and tents after any election-related chaos subsides.
Roofers Union, a restaurant and bar in Adams Morgan, used its grant funding to purchase a 20-by-10-foot tent and four propane heaters.
“It makes a big difference in these times when we don’t have money to spend on anything,” said David Delaplaine, the restaurant’s general manager.
Other restaurateurs are using the extra funding to reimagine their business models. Matt Murphy, co-owner of the Pub and the People, is known for erecting a large nondenominational-holiday tent outside his Bloomingdale corner pub. But this year, he decided a heated tent with hot-air blowers would pose too much of a health risk to customers. Instead, with support from the mayor’s grant, he plans to install five large wood-burning pits and outdoor projectors to create an outdoor movie environment.
“We are just trying to give people a way to embrace this situation,” he said, adding that customers should expect s’mores, hot cocktails and packages with blankets.
But for many business owners across the District and the country, a four-figure grant is far from enough to sustain business through the winter. Industry surveys show that 40 percent of all restaurant owners nationwide say they expect to go out of business by March without more government assistance.
Colin McDonough, co-owner of the Bloomingdale pub Boundary Stone, is one of them.
“While every little bit helps, the grant just wasn’t going to be something that would significantly turn the tide for us,” he said. “We were hitting the point where every month or week in business could have been extremely detrimental to the possibility of reopening.”
After months operating in the red and without a federal stimulus bill in sight, McDonough has decided to temporarily shutter his establishment in late November. A few propane heaters, he figured, would not draw customers out of their houses when the temperature plummets.
In historic Anacostia, meanwhile, funding for outdoor dining similarly proved futile. Only one business in Ward 7 applied for the grant. No businesses in Ward 8 submitted applications, according to a D.C. official.
Kristina Noell, executive director of the Anacostia Business Improvement District, said many businesses in her neighborhoods rely entirely on takeout and indoor dining and do not have the bandwidth to establish brand-new outdoor operations.
“I know our businesses would really like to expand into a Streatery, but that is a hurdle that they just won’t be able to do,” she said. “Being able to manage the staff outside plus being partially open on the inside is just outside of their capacity.”
As a historic election season continues, regional coronavirus cases surge and the weather cools, local business owners agree on one thing: City support will not be enough to get through the winter without an influx of federal relief.