In late January, while indoor dining was still prohibited due to COVID-19 restrictions, Albion Malleable Brewing Company started construction on outdoor igloos to provide space for dining. Reservations can now be made to eat inside the heated igloos up to one week in advance.
Since the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) order limits indoor seating to 25% capacity, the igloos provide extra seating for Albion Malleable customers. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only six people are allowed in an igloo at one time. However, if there were no capacity restrictions, igloos would be rearranged into living room-style seating that would comfortably fit eight to ten people.
“We’ve actually wanted to [incorporate igloos] for a couple of winters. We think they’re just a fun Michigan experience in the winter,” said Benjamin Wade, the chief brewing officer for Albion Malleable. “With COVID-19 restrictions, it became more valuable because it helps us add capacity and offers diners who aren’t comfortable around other people a chance to come out and sit with just their close circle.”
The igloos arrived only a few days after the company ordered them, but there were challenges setting up the coverings and providing heat supply.
“They were a lot like a big Lego kit for the most part. One of our front of house leads, Nick, gets a lot of the credit for the heavy lifting,” said Wade.
Malleable first used small heaters in the igloos, which worked well for the warmer winter days. However, small heaters have since been replaced with larger units to make the igloos more comfortable for the colder Michigan weather. According to its Facebook page, Malleable has suggested that dressing in layers is the best way to stay warm.
There is no minimum amount of guests required to book the igloo, but reservations need to be made with a $50 non-refundable deposit. The deposit is applied back to the party’s total bill following the meal. If a customer spends less than $50 while dining, the remainder is considered a rental fee that helps cover the initial igloo investment, heating cost and additional staffing to service the igloos. A 20% gratuity is also automatically applied to the bill.
“So far, it’s mostly a non-issue. They are almost always used by parties of four to six and spend more than $50,” said Wade. “If students wanted to share that cost, we could probably simply split whatever remaining balance owed among the party to make it an even bill.”
Like most restaurants, Malleable took a revenue hit when they transitioned to carry-out only. They were also forced to layoff and then bring back employees as restrictions changed throughout the year. Capacity restrictions have been a problem for consistency and stability since the pandemic started in March.
“We strive to offer the best possible experience, and that can be challenging when someone isn’t working for a couple of months and has to re-familiarize themselves,” said Wade. “Even with being open inside, we’ve had capacity restrictions now since last March, so it’s definitely limiting our revenue and impairing our ability to grow.”
Even with 25% capacity, Wade says that the biggest daily inconvenience comes from the added stress to their employees about having to monitor guests for masks.
“Most are good at this point, but we still get people entering without them or trying to get up and move around without putting them back on. Our staff is pretty good at spotting this and reminding them, but it’s exhausting and frustrating,” said Wade. “We look forward to the day when we no longer have to feel like we’re policing customers.”
While restaurant igloos have grown in popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Malleable plans to use them annually from October to April.
“We’ve really appreciated the continued support of our customers and the hard work of our staff through a very challenging year,” said Wade. “We encourage everyone to continue to support locally owned businesses, and when you do, mask up, be kind and tip well. A lot of people in the industry are really struggling right now.”