South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

For many businesses, heat is on amid pandemic

Outdoor heaters help restaurant­s keep lights on

- By C.J. Hughes

NEWYORK— Themusthav­e accessory for many businesses thiswinter is basic, but lately it has been hard to find: the humble space heater.

As coronaviru­s cases surge, andas people shun or are even barred from gathering in indoor spaces, restaurant­s, hotels and office buildings are installing outdoor heaters on sidewalks and terraces in a bid to retain customers and tenants.

The effort can seem like an existentia­l quest. A rise in demand has left some products back-ordered for months, jeopardizi­ng prospects for some of businesses to get through the pandemic intact.

“Surviving this pandemic has become like junglewarf­are,” said Mark Barak, chief executive of LaPecora Bianca, a restaurant that has decked out the outside areas of its three New York locations with about 70 heaters.

“I joke withmy staff that I have become an outdoordin­ing general contractor. That’s how I now spend so much of my time,” Barak said.

Distributo­rs say they are having trouble keeping up with demand.

Gas-Fired Products, a North Carolina manufactur­er of heating equipment, is selling three times as many heaters as it did in 2019, said Paul Horne, vice president of the company. Its products include $1,200 versions with enclosed flames that promise to stay lit in 40 mph winds.

“Any opportunit­y that people can find to go to a restaurant or hang out with friends outside, they’re going to take advantage,” Horne said.

The profile of customers is changing, vendors say. Heaters once ended up on

backyard patios, but they are becoming fixtures of commercial buildings.

Just a year ago, businesses made up 10% of the clients of Radtec, a Texasbased distributo­r. Today, that share is 50%, said AdamMinton, sales directorof the company, whose products include tabletop heaters and ones shaped like pyramids.

Interest has come from several northern cites grappling with falling temperatur­es, but New York in particular is a hive of activity, Minton said, adding that the city has gone frombeing “no market” last year to the company’s largest today.

“There is such a demand that people say, ‘I don’t care if it glows or doesn’t glow. I just need heat,’ ” Minton said. “They don’t even ask about cost or coverage area.”

For some businesses, like restaurant­s, the timing can be crucial. As states like California and Michigan move to impose restrictio­ns, including shutting down indoor dining, having a space outside can offer a chance to survive the pan

demic.

“I think it’s going to be a very difficult winter, and a lot more restaurant­s will close,” said Andrew Moger, chief executive of BCD, a restaurant consulting group whose clients have included Westville, Dinosaur Bar-b-que and Benihana.

The surge in demand has caught some stores flatfooted. Major hardware retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot are frequently out of stock, say shoppers who have combed through aisles.

“Like all retailers, we have seen high demand for many items, and our merchants and supply chain teams have beenworkin­g to replenish what they can,” a Home Depot spokespers­on said.

Many of the outdoor heaters sold in the United States are made in China, which is struggling to keep up with the heightened interest. Chinese factories used to take two months to fill Radtec’s orders, and they now take three, Minton said.

Yet prices for heaters, which comein propane, na

tural gas or electric versions, do not yet seem to be climbing, possibly because the huge volume of business allows manufactur­ers to keep their costs down, analysts say.

Despite skyrocketi­ng use, the cost of propane is similarly stable, saidTucker Perkins, chief executive of the Propane Education and Research Council, an advocacy group based in Washington.

In 2019, U.S. consumers burned through 284 million gallons of propane in heaters, grills and other appliances, Perkins said. In2020, that number is likely to nearly double to 500 million gallons.

Still, those small- scale uses are a drop in the bucket comparedwi­th consumptio­n in the overall national market, which is about 10 billon gallons a year, he said.

New York, which mostly banned the gas for use in commercial heat lamps until reversing course in October to help struggling restaurant­s, “is nowthe epicenter of the growth,” Perkins said, with 60,000

gallons consumed a day.

Snapping up heaters this summer, well in advance of the winter season, appears to have been a smart move for business owners. Welltimed renovation­s also helped, said Barak of La Pecora, whose SoHo location was being remodeled when the pandemic hit.

During constructi­on, workers upgraded gas lines and installed wiring, improvemen­ts that might have been difficult to pull off in a place that was already open, he said. The renovation included wallmounte­d electric heaters as a backup and a transforme­r to power them.

To prepare for La Pecora’s opening late lastmonth, Barak also added rows of mushroom- shaped freestandi­ng heaters, powered by both natural gas and propane, along the sidewalk at his restaurant, which can accommodat­e 80 people outside and 40 inside. All told, the heat-related extras cost “a few hundred thousand dollars," he said, adding, “I don’t think anyone else has more heat per seat thanwedo.”

New York may have relaxedsom­eheater rules, but fires remain a concern. Businesses are still not allowed to store full propane tanks on-site over fears of setting off an explosion. But heaters churn through about 4 gallons a day — the amount inside a 20-pound tank used for most grills — meaning restaurant­s with heaters burning day and night can face regular fuel shortages.

And existing propane services tended to punch out early, leaving businesses with late- night hours stranded. To meet that demand, Derek Kaye, who ran a fleet of food trucks before the pandemic stunted his business, switched gears this summer to start NYC PropaneDel­ivery, a six-employee business that supplies tanks to restaurant­s daily from dawn to midnight.

“Hopefully, that will continue,” Kaye said.

But not every business can heat outdoor spaces, and some are turning to rudimentar­y alternativ­es.

Tishman Speyer, a national office landlord, is not permitted to place heaters on some high-floor terraces of its Rockefelle­r Center, over concerns that wind could send them flying. Portable heaters also can’t be positioned too close to walls, said Thais Galli, a Tishman managing director

But many of the employees who do come into the office — about 15% of prepandemi­c totals— prefer to hold meetings on the terraces, so wind-blocking options, like Plexiglas s screens, rows of evergreens and plastic igloos, are now under considerat­ion, Galli said.

At One Federal Street, a Tishman high-rise in Boston, the landlord hands out compliment­ary single-use fleece blankets and wool hats for those who want to grab a breath of fresh air on the lawn-lined ninth-floor terrace, where most heaters are also verboten.

“It’s a real work in progress,” Galli said.

 ?? JEENAH MOON/THE NEWYORK TIMES ?? Patrons dine outdoors under propane heaters last week at La Pecora Bianca, a restaurant in New York.
JEENAH MOON/THE NEWYORK TIMES Patrons dine outdoors under propane heaters last week at La Pecora Bianca, a restaurant in New York.

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