SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Colder weather on the Central Coast is a sign that winter is looming, and so could be struggles for local restaurant owners.
Outdoor dining in Santa Barbara slowed over a chilly weekend, which also featured gusty winds and occasional rain.
Already financially stretched during the pandemic, restaurant owners are bracing for a months-long hit to their dine-in business due to the cold weather, one that could force some businesses to close.
Restaurants with little or no indoor dining space are particularly vulnerable.
Taqueria El Bajio on the city's Eastside has a patio on the sidewalk area in front of the building, but does not have enough space inside for properly distanced tables.
“I understand that we have a good patio outside, but it’s gonna be very difficult due to the weather,” said owner Santos Guzman. “But not only for me, for everybody.”
Guzman says other restaurant owners along the Milpas Street corridor share similar seating situations and are also concerned.
Restaurants on State Street have the benefit of more foot traffic and built-in patio areas on the street as part of the city's pedestrian promenade. But they face the extra challenge of more expensive rent.
Restaurants across the city have invested in outdoor heaters to keep guests warm.
Aron Ashland, owner of Santa Barbara's The Cruisery, says he luckily had some heaters left over from a previous restaurant and bought more this summer. He admits that they come at a cost.
“To try and keep 12 heaters that are probably about 20 dollars a day, they last about eight hours a tank,” He said. “So you start doing the math, you know, you get a couple tables in there, it pays for itself. But if you don’t have tables and you have [the heaters] on, you’re really kind of hosed. It can get bad really quickly if you’re not paying attention.”
And while Ashland is staying positive and his staff is following Public Health guidelines, he recognizes that the next few months remain uncertain.
He says The Cruisery's large indoor space has been important during this cooler week.
If Santa Barbara County were to be downgraded back into the purple tier, the most restrictive tier of California's reopening plan, all restaurant dining would be forced outdoors, into the cold.
“To not be able to use any of the indoor space to try and make that rent would be really, really challenging,” Ashland said of that hypothetical. “Again, cause we did that for a few months. And so to have to do that again, that would be probably catastrophic, unfortunately.”
Typical winter gatherings--such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's parties--will likely be canceled or scaled back significantly this year, eliminating another revenue stream for restaurants.