Rockford restaurants ready for first post-pandemic patio season

Published: May. 23, 2023 at 6:08 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - While the pandemic wreaked havoc on the service industry, the one positive thing COVID-19 taught restaurant owners is how to survive by expanding outdoor dining, which is here to stay for may Rockford eateries.

“COVID taught us how to pivot in more ways than one,” said Octane owner Patrick Alberto.

For Octane, that meant expanding the dining room to the sidewalk outside the downtown restaurant. It helped Alberto, who bought business in 2019, stay open during the pandemic. And it’s what he’s excited about now that his sales are starting to finally come back.

“Every month just gets better,” he said. “The amount of people that are comfortable coming out to eat has been enormous.”

Not having to rely on outdoor dining to survive is a breath of fresh air for restaurants like Octane. It means they can work on building a following like Rockford eateries that have had expanded patio service for years.

“They’ve been coming—like for 20 years i’ve got people i’ve been waiting on solidly for 20 years and taking care of,” said Garrett’s server Cary Plummer. They’re still coming in today.”

But, Plummer and Alberto have had one thing in common since the pandemic—a need for increase their workforce.

“We need more people,” Plummer said. “There’s not a lot of people coming in the door for it. They’re not looking for jobs. I’m not sure what that’s all about.”

Rockford leaders say they aren’t surprised that outdoor dining didn’t go away when the pandemic ended.

“People want to be outside, dine outside,” said Lindsay Arellano, vice president of sales and services with the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a good feeling. It’s a good atmosphere. I think it’s a welcoming atmosphere for people.”

A number of Rockford restaurants, Octane included, also opened food trucks during the pandemic as a way to get creative with outdoor dining.

And although pre-COVID crowds have returned, costs are still an issue for restaurants. What was a 25-percent margin before the pandemic is now around 5 to 10%.