14 September 2020 - Outdoor dining has been a summer savior in these COVID times, keeping restaurants and the people they employ afloat while bringing sidewalks and streets once hushed by stay-at-home orders back to life.
But with Labor Day now behind us, many city leaders and residents alike are asking, “What’s next?” “What becomes of the vibrant ‘streateries’ once winter comes rolling in?”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Chicago, notorious for its frigid winters and whipping lakefront winds, is at the forefront of the hunt for an answer. The city recently launched the City of Chicago Winter Dining Challenge to get everyone from designers to dishwashers thinking up new ideas for how to do outdoor eating in the cold in a way that is both appealing and safe for customers and restaurant workers.
More intriguing is just how much interest the competition has generated, including nearly 650 entries from all over the world. There are dozens of takes on warming large patios and small dining pods, including approaches likened to greenhouses, igloos, and yurts; ideas for repurposing parking garages and city buses; furniture-based concepts with heated tables, seats and umbrellas, and even a Swiss-style fondue chalet.
The goal, said Samir Mayekar, Chicago’s Deputy Mayor for Economic and Neighborhood Development, is to surface ideas city leaders would never have thought of. Three winners will get $5,000 each and see their ideas piloted in neighborhoods across the city in October.
“We’re looking to crowdsource novel ideas, through experts and amateurs alike,” Mayekar said. “Not only for how we develop new structures for outdoor dining but also how we can embark on cultural change, which is vital to get folks out of hibernation mode and to want to be outside and eat.”
Cities everywhere are watching what Chicago comes up with. For cold-weather cities, there may be ideas to borrow to help residents endure a long, dark pandemic winter. But you don’t need a parka to appreciate the approach to innovation: Challenge competitions are one of the oldest techniques for crowdsourcing ideas, and particularly useful in times like this, when cities everywhere face common but unprecedented problems.
Indeed, COVID-19 has spurred other cities to undertake various competitions of their own. For example, Baltimore’s “Design for Distancing” competition received 162 submissions for ways to activate public spaces in COVID-safe ways. And Los Angeles hosted a challenge for data scientists to build tools to help residents make safer choices about where to go when they venture out to shop, eat, or visit parks.
Chicago turned to the challenge approach because “we want to make sure we’re pulling every single lever we have to support our economy through the winter months,” Mayekar said. Industry experts, restaurant operators, and servers will be involved in screening the submissions, he said, because “they’re the ones who will be the most informed as to if a concept will or won’t work.”
Once winners are announced at the end of this month, those concepts will be piloted across the city, including underinvested neighborhoods targeted for revitalization through the city’s INVEST South/West Initiative. The aim is to get feedback from consumers and restaurant staff, and start rolling out solutions before snow arrives. Sponsors are expected to help small neighborhood restaurants pay for products they couldn’t otherwise afford.
“The piloting that will happen over the course of October will be vital to showing proof of concept,” Mayekar said. “This is very much a ‘Lean Startup’ methodology of really testing these solutions in a way that is innovative for government.”
Photo from Unsplash of Chicago, United States by Sawyer Bengtson (@sawyerbengtson)