Why the Hottest Fall Accessory Will Be the Patio Heater
From restaurants to schools, everyone’s prepping for a lifeline during a long, cold, Covid-19 winter
In cities and towns across the country, makeshift outdoor restaurants strung together with pop-up tents, plants, and string lights have colonized sidewalks and newly pedestrianized streets. With indoor dining not encouraged — or in some places like New York City, still off-limits — these on-the-fly adaptations have become the only lifeline for an industry bludgeoned by the pandemic. “It is very hard, hard times for me; I only survive here,” Amritpal Singh, the owner of Angel Indian, a restaurant in Queens, recently told the New York Times. Singh reportedly spent $3,000 to upgrade his outdoor dining area, and it’s just barely keeping the business afloat.
In New York City, some 9,500 restaurants have been granted outdoor permits; San Francisco has an equivalent Shared Spaces program with 1,000 restaurants approved; and Chicago has granted permits to hundreds more through its Expanded Outdoor Dining Program. But what happens to these restaurants when fall and winter settle in, there still isn’t a vaccine, and people are told the only safe place to gather is outdoors? There is about to be a huge run on outdoor heaters.
The outdoor heater is quickly becoming the symbol of sanity for a long, cold Covid-19 winter.
In mid-July, Dan Munger first started getting calls from restaurants about renting heaters. He’s the director of sales for DMC Facility Services, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey-based company that manages facilities for local restaurants, including chains such as Shake Shack, Chick-fil-A, and Olive Garden. While he gets a pre-winter bump every year, 2020 has already been more like a surge. “I’ve had almost 75% more calls about heaters than last year,” he says. “With the restrictions, they’re all trying to maximize their hours of service.”
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Desperate restaurant owners aren’t the only ones trying to get their hands on them. If this summer was all about hoarding inflatable pools, RVs, and patio furniture for the Great Staycation, the outdoor heater is quickly becoming the symbol of sanity for a long, cold Covid-19 winter. From eateries and bars to schools hatching outdoor classrooms, a huge boost in demand is predicted for the toasty devices typically reserved for hip restaurants in L.A. Already, Home Depot reports that current demand for outdoor heaters is outpacing 2019 while Wayfair has reportedly seen a 70% increase in searches for patio heaters in the past five weeks compared with last year.
The heater boom first started back in March as lockdowns kept many Americans trapped in their homes and looking for ways to utilize their patios and backyards. Amazon reports that sales of outdoor heaters increased by nearly 70% from April to June compared with the same time last year. Now it’s picking up again, and some heater manufacturers are having trouble keeping up as Covid-19 has strained international supply chains. “We’re ordering as much as possible,” says Josh Rookstool, the director of sales for Sunheat outdoor heaters, which are stocked by Wayfair, Home Depot, and more. “However, there are still major backups in production.” The Nebraska-based company has seen sales increase 400% so far this year on its wide selection of patio heaters and fire pits — including a 12-color LED light-show heater, whose base cycles through pink, green, orange, and more to create a party ambiance, and the “Sunheat & Beat,” a wall-mounted heater and Bluetooth speaker combo.
Demand is also expected to rise as schools and colleges increasingly consider outdoor classrooms.
Pre-Covid-19 predictions estimated the patio heater category to grow more than 7% per year from 2018 to 2022, but similar to other pandemic-induced rushes on toilet paper, flour, and bicycles, the category’s experiencing unprecedented demand. Every flavor of heater has been going fast — wall-mounted heaters powered by Bluetooth apps, freestanding heaters reminiscent of CB2 lamps, tabletop fire pit heaters with a hidden propane-tank base, heaters hidden within bistro table legs, and heaters nestled inside outdoor parasols. “All outdoor heating categories are hot right now,” says Kaley Galinsky, an associate merchant for outdoor fire at Home Depot. Melissa Wilson, the senior category manager for Overstock’s outdoor and garden patio furniture and décor, says that Overstock’s propane heaters have “consistently” been popular, with “free-standing tall propane heaters with glass tubes selling best.”
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Companies have been quick to promote their heat-emitting wares as customers begin thinking about how to extend summertime comfort through the colder months. On Instagram, Alfresco Heating, a patio heater distributor near the Bay Area, told followers, “Even in a pandemic, your own patio offers a change of scene, fresh air, and the sounds of nature,” and AEI Corporation, an Irvine, California-based distributor of electric heaters, encouraged hospitality businesses to “reopen with a heater.”
Demand is also expected to rise as schools and colleges increasingly consider outdoor classrooms, which are being hatched in Vermont, Philadelphia, and most recently, New York City, which held outdoor classes during the 1907 tuberculosis pandemic. Mount Madonna School in Watsonville, California, has already purchased outdoor heaters and tarps and is requesting students wear layers.
The outdoor heater boom also seems to be driving a rush for something else: fuel. In Houston, propane-tank delivery startup Cynch reports a fourfold increase in orders, and Stackline, an e-commerce platform that monitors daily search volume, prices, sales, and ratings on retailers like Amazon and Target, reports that e-commerce sales of propane tanks are up 83% year to date (compared with last year), with searches for “propane tank” up 82%. The Propane Education and Research Council has some advice about the next hot item for businesses to hoard: Lock down your propane supply now.
Update: An earlier version of this piece misidentified Amazon and Target as Stackline’s customers. It monitors search volume on those retail sites.