BELLVILLE -- Summer is the best time to do business for Donnie and Jennifer VanMeter. When the weather is warm and the sun is shining, the Wishmaker House winery’s outdoor patio is bustling with patrons and live music.
Winter, on the other hand, is a slow season. Indoor space is limited -- and even more so this year, due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.
Jennifer VanMeter estimated the restaurant lost about 40 percent of its indoor dining capacity to meet health and safety guidelines.
“We only had 15 tables, so it wasn't like we had a big dining room to begin with. Losing all that -- It's been rough,” she said.
As the weather cooled, the VanMeters began looking into ways they could continue to use their patio space. The couple saw a news segment about restaurants using heated “igloos” -- clear, tent-like structures made of weatherproof plastic and PVC pipes -- during the winter.
“This summer, we did really well because our patio is so huge,” Van Meter said. “We thought it would be a good way to use our outdoor patio in the winter so it wasn’t sitting empty.”
Each igloo is adorned with twinkle lights and has an adjustable space heater that keeps them at a comfortable temperature. The igloos seat between six and eight people comfortably.
It’s been less than a week since the winery announced its igloo dining option, but guests have been receptive so far.
“We took a chance and I think they're going to pay off because I cannot tell you how many phone calls we're getting daily. I mean it's insane,” VanMeter said. “I'm getting calls from different restaurant owners in different cities now. I think this year we're going to be very unique to it. Next year, in my opinion, you're gonna see it popping up all over.”
While the trend is fairly new to Richland County, Wishmaker wasn’t the first to experiment with dining igloos. The Vault Wine Bar in Shelby debuted its dining igloos in January.
Cindy Lash, who owns The Vault with her husband Ben, said they enjoyed relative popularity last winter, but she expects them to be even more appealing during the pandemic.
“You can just have your own personal group of people, friends and family members,” she said. “They'll be able to isolate in there. The server that’s coming in is really the only person they'll come into contact with.”
The Vault and Wishmaker will be sanitizing the igloos between each use. Both offer free reservations for a two-hour period and ask groups to spend a minimum of $150.
“It's tons of trial and error,” said Jordan Tackett, wine vendor and restaurant manager at Wishmaker. “They're kind of difficult to put together. It takes four to five hours.”
Nevertheless, Tackett said his role in setting up the igloos wasn’t the most challenging -- it was the decorating. Wishmaker has currently has four igloos set up (a fifth is on its way), each decorated according to a different theme.
“The ambience is slightly different in each one,” Tackett said. “During the holiday season, we'll be able to decorate outside and I think that's going to be a big draw for people to be able to come and see the lights. It should be able to open up opportunities that we have something unique and novel here for people to come enjoy.”
Both restaurants said they plan to utilize the igloos even after the pandemic. While the igloos have been a way to recoup lost seating, they also provide a unique and whimsical experience for customers.
“They're beautiful inside. This I think is just going to be such a new thing that a lot of people are going to want to experience, regardless of COVID,” Tackett said.
To make a reservation for an igloo at Wishmaker House, call 419-886-9463. To make a reservation for an igloo at The Vault, call 567-292-9081.