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Businesses Plan for a Winter of Waiting Outside

Customers wait outside Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier last year when social distancing was enforced before vaccines were available. Photo by Olivia White
Restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores have adapted their businesses to the pandemic by offering curbside pickup and takeout. But having those options create lines — sometimes long lines — of customers waiting outside. Now that the days are getting colder, what are businesses doing to keep their customers out of cold weather? At Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex, their answer to that problem was to build a waiting shelter.

“I call this our wooden tent,” said Red Hen owner Randy George while gesturing to the large structure attached to the side of the cafe. On Wednesday at noon, there were about 15 people waiting in the shelter to pick up orders of fresh loaves, coffees, and sandwiches. “It’s the next stage in this evolution,” George said.

The first stage in the evolution began back in April, when the cafe decided to install service windows so that they could offer curbside pickup and to-go ordering. So far, this model has been rather successful, taking in 80 to 90 percent of last year’s sales in breakfast and lunch items. 

The Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex, Vermont anticipated customers getting cold this fall and built a warming shelter outside the takeout counter. Photo by Carla Occaso
By September, with the weather getting colder and the coronavirus going nowhere, the need for a shelter became apparent. The challenge in planning such a structure was ensuring that it provided adequate protection from the elements while also allowing enough space and air for people to socially distance. The structure was built with wide and open entrances and slats at the top and bottom. George said that there is enough airflow for it to be considered an outdoor space.

“We’ve had customers, including some who are medical professionals, tell us that they feel like this is a safe place to come,” said George.

Other businesses around town are also providing winter cover.

Hunger Mountain Co-op, which has an entrance line that extends into the parking lot, is planning to change the placement of its line so that it is under the building’s existing overhang. According to General Manager Kari Bradley, the store is also working with an awning company to create additional coverage, and will build an indoor structure for employees who monitor the intake of customers at the door. 

Sarducci’s restaurant, which relies on customers dining-in, installed a propane tank to heat the outdoor tent so that it can continue offering a dining space with better air circulation than its indoor seating. The restaurant also put up plexiglass partitions between bartenders and customers in order to reopen bar seating.

Red Hen Baking is now looking to install lights and a heater in the waiting shelter. But George is hesitant to add more than that. “Whatever we do out here will never be as comfortable as an indoor space. That’s the irony of this. If we go down a path of thinking ‘How can we improve this and make it nicer,’ you get yourself to a re-creation of the thing we’re avoiding to begin with.”

That balance between comfort and safety is one that many other businesses will have to grapple with in the coming months. 

“We hate not being inside, and we’ll be very happy whenever we can get back to it,” George added, “but we also feel that this is, for the foreseeable future, the way we need to do it.”