Christopher Holland, owner of Taproot Lounge and Cafe, puts out patio furniture on Thursday, Dec. 10. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

On a cool, sunny day in December, Divine Distillers had its first customers in weeks.

Pam Vorachek, a distiller and special projects director at Divine Distillers, recalled how two people stopped by for a flight of craft spirits after bars and restaurants had been allowed to reopen for outdoor service.  

Since then, the distillery hasn’t seen any new customers, she said.

But Divine Distillers along with other Salem bars and restaurants are hoping that will change. Bars and restaurants, which were restricted to takeout and delivery for much of November, are now allowed to serve patrons outdoors after Gov. Kate Brown eased her orders on Dec. 3. 

To help local bars and restaurants set up outdoor serving areas for the cold and wet months ahead, the city of Salem set up a $200,000 grant program to help them purchase coverings, heaters and other items.

“We are hearing from many businesses that these funds are critical in allowing them to expand seating through the winter,” Annie Gorski, the city’s economic development manager, said in an email.

The city is awarding the grants on a rolling basis, she said. So far, 58 businesses, including Divine Distillers, have received grants averaging $4,200.

The latest effort to help bars and restaurants in Salem comes at a difficult time for the state’s leisure and hospitality industry, which has been decimated by the pandemic.

According to the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, the state’s hospitality industry has experienced an average revenue loss of at least 30% from last year while other industries saw losses averaging 5%. With federal relief programs winding down, the association is calling for the Legislature to set up a $75 million relief fund. The association is also challenging the governor’s restrictions in federal court.

“It is absolutely essential to be open,” said Jason Greenwood, the co-owner of Divine Distillers.

He said that the outdoor seating will give it a small boost and allow it to continue developing a customer base for the distillery’s brandy, rum and agaves. Divine Distillers has won medals in international competitions and people will generally buy a bottle of the distillery’s spirits after trying them, he said. 

Greenwood said he used the $4,000 grant to purchase a 20-by-30-foot covering made out of weather-resistant plastic. He said he’s planning to set it up along with five heaters next week at the distiller’s new location at 2475 25th St S.E.

Regulations still require tables in outdoor seating to be at least 6 feet apart and heaters need to be placed where they won’t be a fire hazard. Greenwood estimates that he’ll be able to accommodate 20 to 40 people comfortably.

But Greenwood said the distillery’s business is down by 95% from where it should be and even with the outdoor seating it’s survival is uncertain.

Christopher Holland, the owner of Taproot Lounge & Café, said he received a $5,000 grant from the city to purchase coverings and heaters at the restaurant's new location at the Willamette Heritage Center, located at 1313 Mill St S.E.

He said he’ll need to get an additional license from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to serve alcoholic beverages in the 400-square-foot area at the center. Holland said he and his staff are figuring out where they can place the heaters and how to arrange tables to comply with social distancing requirements.

“It’s still kind of a big puzzle,” he said.

Holland said that Taproot’s downtown location at 356 State St. has outdoor seating. But with the cold weather, it’s been slow. Like Divine Distillers, Holland said that having the expanded outdoor seating will at least create some cash flow and introduce customers to its rib-eye steaks and creamy broccoli soup served in a bread bowl.

Even with the outdoor seating, this will still be a difficult year, said Holland. He said that between the state shutdown orders and smoke from September’s wildfire he will have had to shut down three times this year. Before the pandemic he had about 40 employees, he said. Now, he has around 10 to 15.

Other businesses have had a hard time pivoting to outdoor dining. The regulations allowing outdoor service require bars and restaurants to set up areas that allow open airflow.

Last week, La Margarita, a restaurant located at 545 Ferry St. S.E., took to Facebook to complain that it had to disassemble its outdoor seating after it ran afoul of regulations.

The restaurant had tables set up next to the building with heaters under the awning and a partial barrier separating it from the street.

Javier Munoz, the restaurant’s owner, said a representative from the city and the fire marshal told him that the setup was blocking the sidewalk and the heaters were too close to the building. They suggested he set up an outdoor seating area in the parking lot, he said. But the parking lot is too close to busy Ferry Street to be safe, he said.

Kristin Retherford, the city’s urban development director, said in an email that some businesses began setting up coverings before learning about safety requirements and the city has worked with them on modifications.

“Each restaurant is unique, with different buildings, sidewalk widths, and proximity to traffic,” she said. “The City is trying to support outdoor dining downtown and be as flexible as possible.”

But she said the city still must balance the needs of restaurants with safety requirements and the considerations of neighboring businesses.

Munoz said that the restaurant spent $2,000 on the setup but took it down to avoid a fine. Even some additional business from the outdoor seating would have helped, he said.

“Because now even $100 is a lot,” he said.

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 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.