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What will it take to make diners feel safe indoors? Nearly 60% feel uneasy eating inside, so restaurants try sterilizing UV wands, tabletop air purifiers as winter looms.

A portable ionic air purifier is seen Sept. 17, 2020, on a table at Formento's, an Italian restaurant in Chicago's West Town neighborhood. Recently, Formento's installed an array of air filtration and ventilation devices to help diners feel safe eating inside the restaurant.

A portable ionic air purifier is seen Sept. 17, 2020, on a table at Formento's, an Italian restaurant in Chicago's West Town neighborhood. Recently, Formento's installed an array of air filtration and ventilation devices to help diners feel safe eating inside the restaurant. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

The host greeting diners at Formento’s, an Italian restaurant in the West Town neighborhood, now offers guests something new alongside the menu and wine list: a portable air purifier for their table.

The tabletop devices are among a series of air quality upgrades the restaurant introduced this month to assure customers they can breathe easy dining inside.

Diners can also expect to see bussers using ultraviolet wands to sterilize glassware and utensils, and little air-sucking robots in various corners of the restaurant that use heat to kill microorganisms. Unseen are new air filters installed in the HVAC system meant to trap virus particles.

The changes were costly for a restaurant that continues to lose money due to COVID-19. But Phillip Walters, whose B. Hospitality Co. owns Formento’s as well as its sister sandwich restaurant Nonna’s, and The Bristol in the Bucktown neighborhood, said it’s a necessary investment if the businesses are going to survive.

“We have to convince people that restaurants are safe,” Walters said.

Restaurants hoping to see the other side of the pandemic are pouring money into air quality upgrades and other safety features even as business remains devastated by COVID-19. As they burn through cash, they are counting on customers taking comfort in the changes and filling seats.

AF3000 "autoclave" filters are placed in the bar and dining room at Formento's in Chicago.

AF3000 "autoclave" filters are placed in the bar and dining room at Formento's in Chicago. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

It’s a gamble for customers as well as restaurants. Some indoor air quality experts question the effectiveness of products that claim to halt airborne transmission of the coronavirus but haven’t been rigorously tested.

But as winter approaches, and restaurants brace for the loss of patio seating that’s been a lifeline during the warm months, instilling confidence in indoor air quality has become a pressing issue.

“I’m doing anything I can for my customers to feel safe to eat at my restaurants,” said Scott Harris, founder of Francesca’s Restaurant Group, which owns Mia Francesca in Lakeview and 25 other establishments.

Francesca’s is spending about $100,000 to outfit the HVAC units in all of its restaurants with bipolar ionization technology, which kills viruses through a chemical reaction. Menus will have a blurb explaining the technology and servers will be trained to describe it to customers, Harris said.

The added expense comes as revenues remain down 80% in Francesca’s city restaurants and 30% in the suburbs, and overall costs have increased due to masks, hand sanitizer and many boxes of gloves for its 2,700 employees. Management is discussing raising prices a bit, by 50 cents here and there, to help absorb it.

“It’s hitting our bottom line big time,” said Harris, who expects money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program will sustain his restaurants through December. He is contemplating closing his three city restaurants for fear demand, hurt by both the coronavirus and the social unrest, won’t bounce back.

Lettuce Entertain You, Chicago’s largest restaurant group, expects to make a seven-figure investment to install air purification technologies at all 120-plus restaurants across the country by the end of October, said R.J. Melman, president of the company.

Though Chicago has encouraged creative solutions to keep outdoor dining alive when temperatures plunge, and on Monday released guidelines for erecting and heating tents and geodesic domes, “at the end of the day, for most restaurants in Chicago survival depends on indoor dining,” Melman said.

Convincing people to come inside will be a challenge. Nearly 60% of people say they feel uncomfortable dining indoors, according to a new study from market research firm Mintel.

Melman thinks diners are willing to eat indoors where they feel safe doing so.

“People want to get out,” he said.

For Walters, of Formento’s, the decision to invest in indoor air quality came as he reached a crossroads on how to survive winter.

He explored installing a system of heated tents, but it was complicated and expensive, with bids suggesting a $50,000 to $100,000 price tag.

So he took a different path, consulting HVAC specialists to devise a five-layered air purification system to make indoor dining more appealing. The cost was about $13,000 for Formento’s, which is 13,000 square feet, and $3,000 at the much smaller Bristol.

High-performance MERV-13 air filters are installed in all HVAC units at Formento's in Chicago's West Town neighborhood.

High-performance MERV-13 air filters are installed in all HVAC units at Formento's in Chicago's West Town neighborhood. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Walters followed guidance from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers to install higher-density filters in all of the HVAC units, opting for MERV-13 filters that are effective at blocking most particles the size of the novel coronavirus.

To convince the public, however, “we had to go above and beyond.”

In addition to the tabletop ionic air purifiers, which are optional for guests, he bought multiple UV-C germicidal sterilizing wands for cleaning between customers, and supplied after-hours cleaning crews with sterilizing foggers. Floor purifiers that suck in air and kill viruses in 400-degree ceramic chambers, before cooling and releasing the air back into the environment, are placed every 500 feet.

Walters is lobbying the city to increase capacity limits from 25% to 50% for restaurants that have taken extensive measures to improve air quality. He is also sharing what he’s learned so other restaurants can adopt similar technologies, which he said don’t have to break the bank.

He worries that if customer traffic doesn’t improve small operators will close and corporate chains with bigger pockets will be the only ones standing when the smoke clears. Formento’s revenues are down 60% and The Bristol’s are down 70% compared with a year ago.

“This industry will whittle away to nothing. To zero,” he said. “People need to get out and eat.”

Hosts, bussers and others use UV-C sterilizing wands to clean tables, utensils and glassware between uses at Formento's.

Hosts, bussers and others use UV-C sterilizing wands to clean tables, utensils and glassware between uses at Formento's. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

For people debating whether to risk dining out, the central question may be whether the air quality enhancements make a difference in preventing transmission of COVID-19.

The Environmental Protection Agency says “there is growing evidence that the novel coronavirus remains airborne in indoor environments for hours, potentially increasing in concentration over time,” and has recommended increasing building ventilation and air filtration as a part of a larger strategy that includes social distancing, wearing masks, hand-washing and disinfecting.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in guidance to office building employers, advises bringing in more outside air, installing better central air filters and using portable high-efficiency particulate air fans to help clean the air. HEPA filters are nearly 100% effective in capturing airborne particles associated with COVID-19.

But the pandemic has opened the floodgates to a slew of other products and technologies that purport to destroy the novel coronavirus, and some experts are warning it’s buyers beware.

Brent Stephens, professor and chair in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said inadequate test standards and misleading claims have made for a Wild West of air cleaning technologies.

He worries some ionization systems have not been adequately tested to ensure they don’t unintentionally create byproducts that are harmful to health. Other products may offer a false sense of security.

“There is a lot of theater out there,” he said. “I would not recommend restaurants going in on these exotic technologies.”

The best way to flush COVID-19 out of the air is to bring in more fresh air through the ventilation system, but that will get more difficult as the weather gets cold and it can’t heat up enough, said Roger Peck, whose construction consulting firm helps build restaurants and other commercial properties. Better air filters also help, though installation can be tricky if restaurants don’t own the building, he said.

More worrisome to Peck is the prospect of winter dining in tents with drop-down panels and no air circulation.

“To me that’s a toxic soup,” he said. “I would choose dining indoors in a heartbeat.”

Some restaurants are forgoing the headache of air quality investments and tent cities altogether and plan to ride out winter by focusing on carryout and delivery, said Doug Roth, president of restaurant consultancy Playground Hospitality.

Still, he applauds businesses that are investing in air quality upgrades to ease patrons' concerns.

“They’re not 100% foolproof, but I think it’s a better option than having nothing at all,” Roth said.

Gibsons Restaurant Group, which owns the iconic Gold Coast steakhouse as well as Hugo’s Frog Bar and other restaurants, is working on a promotional video to highlight the safety steps it is taking, which it plans to push out on social media and send to customers, said Chairman Steve Lombardo III. They include positive air pressure that pushes air out rather than recirculating it, the installation of MERV-11 air filters in the HVAC units and mobile plexiglass barriers that can be rolled around to different tables.

The safety upgrades cost about $10,000 per restaurant, mostly for the plexiglass, plus about $1,500 monthly to change the HVAC filters, he said. It’s a financial pinch given that sales the past three months have on average been down 35% compared with last year, and the restaurants are losing money, but Gibsons, which is well-capitalized and has little debt, can afford it, Lombardo said.

Businesses that can’t may be at a disadvantage as customers weigh where to eat. But some mom-and-pops are finding ways to make air purification a priority.

Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook this month spent $5,000 to outfit its HVAC units with the Sterile-Aire system, which uses ultraviolet energy to inactivate bacteria and viruses. Chef/co-owner Sarah Stegner said she plans to ask the landlord to pay for half or let her take it out of the rent.

People dine inside at Prairie Grass Cafe on Sept. 22, 2020, in Northbrook. The restaurant invested in ultraviolet air purification technology in its HVAC units for colder months when indoor dining is the only option.

People dine inside at Prairie Grass Cafe on Sept. 22, 2020, in Northbrook. The restaurant invested in ultraviolet air purification technology in its HVAC units for colder months when indoor dining is the only option. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Stegner several years ago installed the system in her home, because her husband and daughter have sports-induced asthma and the family has a cat, and found it reduced their congestion. She can’t guarantee it will be a magic bullet against COVID-19, but she wants to do all she can to offer more protection.

“The priority is keeping my staff safe, keeping the guests safe, working in a positive environment where we have a margin of control,” said Stegner, a former Ritz Carlton chef and founding member of Green City Market who opened Prairie Grass 16 years ago.

The cafe is notifying guests of the air filtration system with flyers on the tables and in carryout bags. The feedback has been “incredibly positive,” Stegner said.

The cafe, which normally has 180 seats, has been operating with 50 plus an outside patio. After a scary month when it was $11,000 in the red, it managed to break even in August even though its revenues are half of what they were last year. Stegner credits a smaller staff, her landlord giving her a break on rent, a grant and a series of small cost savings.

“We looked at everything,” Stegner said, from the phone system to the energy bill to pricing and portion sizes.

She also has found new ways to generate revenue, selling raw fish direct to consumers once a week and hosting Zoom cooking classes, which are free to view but people can buy a package of prepped ingredients to follow along. Promotions have also helped, including Women’s Restaurant Week and an exchange with another restaurant in which it sold Stegner’s pot pies and she sold its desserts.

Though it’s been challenging, the pandemic has forced a creativity that Stegner hopes continues long-term. It has also instilled a sense of urgency to not sit on any ideas that could help her business stay afloat.

“If you’re going to do something, do it right away,” Stegner said. “Don’t hesitate, because you might not get a second chance.”

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