Chicago seeks solution for outdoor dining during the winter, offers $5k prizes for safe, 'feasible' ideas

Outdoor dining: It’s all fun and games until it starts snowing on your burrito.

As restaurants across the nation adapt to a new normal amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, eateries that largely rely on outdoor dining are hurtling toward yet another obstacle: the looming winter months and their less-than-favorable alfresco conditions they bring.

In an effort to ease these concerns, the city of Chicago has announced a Winter Design Challenge aimed at finding an innovative solution that still adheres to local health and safety guidelines. The winners will receive $5,000 for their most creative, feasible ideas.

The contest, which runs through Sept. 7, was announced in partnership with BMO Harris Bank, the IDEO design company and the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Millennium Park, Park Grill restaurant, Cloud Gate The Bean, public art with reflection of the distorted city skyline. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“While we’ve had to implement restrictions and take hard measures to combat a recent rise in COVID-19 activity, we will continue to ensure our restaurants, bars and businesses have the supports they need to survive during these unprecedented times,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot in a press release issued earlier this week. “We are asking our community members to come together and think creatively about how we can make outdoor dining feasible in the winter.”

Submissions for the Winter Design Challenge will be accepted through Sept. 7 at IDEO and must include technical descriptions as well as any preliminary research and prototypes or sketches, among other required materials. Ideas also need to address not only the needs of diners, but restaurant operators, staff and even the construction workers needed to bring their designs to life.

Entries will be evaluated by city officials, local restaurateurs and community members before three winners are chosen for their innovative ideas in the following three categories: “outdoor, standalone structures”; “indoor-adjacent spaces”; and “cultural shifts making winter dining more appealing.”


Winners may also be requested to “scale their solutions” once chosen, IDEO stipulates.

News of Chicago’s Winter Design Challenge came just one day before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker tightened statewide policies regarding masks at bars and restaurants, requiring all patrons to wear a mask when interacting with staff at any time, rather than just wearing a mask when not seated at a table. Indoor dining in the state reopened Chicago last month, albeit with strict capacity limits.

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