By NEIL JOHNSON
The Janesville Gazette
JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — The surroundings near Milton’s Timber Hill Winery are more industrial than pastoral, but the ambience inside the winery’s new covered outdoor seating is positively geodesic.
And cozy, if you order a glass of red wine along with some bubbling fondue or s’mores fixings.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some restaurant and bar owners to make their outdoor seating warmer and more inviting to guests who want to dine or drink outdoors into the late fall. But the winery owner, Amanda Stefl, is going a step further.
On Timber Hill’s outdoor patio, Stefl has erected two 10-foot-wide plastic domes and outfitted them for groups of four or so guests. The igloo-style domes, which can be rented by the hour with a reservation, are meant for people who might be nervous about eating or drinking indoors during the pandemic.
Guests pay a premium to lounge on comfy chairs and couches under the domes and enjoy a bottle of wine or a tasting.
As fall turns into winter, and even if it snows, Stefl believes the domes could bring the winery dozens of outdoor-inclined clients on busier days.
“We’ve had a lot of interest in our lawn this fall and our patio,” she said. “It’s been part of business growing for us. The domes really extend the outdoor option for us. The heaters we’re putting inside both domes—they’re new. They’ll keep the spaces very cozy, probably very late into the winter.”
Last winter, Stefl rented one igloo dome for Timber Hill’s patio, and she said it proved popular until temperatures plummeted below zero in February. That experiment came before COVID-19 was a known quantity, but Stefl thought doubling down on the domes this year would cater for guests still leery of gathering inside.
Both domes will be served by one staff member and cleaned between hourlong reservations. In addition to heaters, the domes have air purifiers to help ventilate the spaces.
It’s just one example of the recent innovations Stefl has tried to make her winery work during the pandemic.
Stefl, a microbiologist-turned-winemaker, said Timber Hill has begun marketing boxed assortments of wine samples and selling them by mail to customers throughout the country.
Locally, the winery also plans to quadruple production of its holiday wines. In the past, it sold wine by the case to members who ordered them. This year, Stefl said, she’ll provide holiday wine cases wholesale at local grocery stores, including Woodman’s.
The Janesville City Council is considering a new city program that would offer $2,000 grants to bars and restaurants to offset the cost of outfitting outdoor areas for cold-weather dining.
Some restaurant and bar owners already have mowed through personal or contingency money to keep their businesses above water amid the pandemic, said the council member Paul Benson. Those businesses might need an additional boost to add outdoor modifications that give customers more options.
The council Thursday night asked city staff employees to review Benson’s proposal for a $50,000 loan program and add application rules that would be fair and equitable, The Janesville Gazette reported
Benson proposed the program be part of the 2021 budget, but the council member Tom Wolfe suggested it be paid for with part of the $100,000 set aside for the city’s microloan program, which only one business has applied for since June.
Wolfe’s suggestion was a welcome one to council members and city staff employees who were concerned about using general fund money for the program.
Members were also concerned about the appearance of favoring one business sector over others. Benson said restaurants and bars have been harmed much more than other businesses by the pandemic.
The council is expected to discuss the program further at its Nov. 9 meeting.
Stefl said federal stimulus money given to small businesses early on in the pandemic offset the cost of Timber Hill’s most recent improvements. She plans to apply for a state grant for small businesses that are innovating during COVID-19.
Some Janesville restaurants already have bought propane-powered outdoor heating units and other amenities to keep crowds sitting outside longer. Plastic domes similar to the kind Timber Hill installed have grown in popularity nationwide as a chic, fun way to stretch outdoor dining into winter.
Stefl said a glass of wine seems to make most things better. However, she also believes an uptick in production and sales of Timber Hill wines can be attributed at least partly to the winery’s efforts to offer an experience that feels safer for some customers.
“It’s hard because others aren’t seeing growth right now,” she said. “It’s frustrating, so you don’t want to go overboard celebrating. But I feel like we deserve to celebrate.”