Dropping temperatures and rising COVID cases lead to a spherical solution for Ballard restaurant San Fermo
By Avrelle Harrington
Nestled in on a popular Ballard street, a quaint white house sits with a line of people out the door. San Fermo isn’t even open for dinner yet, but hungry customers are waiting for a chance to dine at a new rendition of the “best seat in the house.”
Amid increasing COVID-19 restrictions in Washington state, San Fermo, a local Italian restaurant was left with a major dining space issue. Tim Baker, the owner of San Fermo, decided to “think out of the box” by thinking about dining inside a bubble.
Baker ordered two “domes” in early October because he predicted restaurant dining would continue to face challenges from COVID and incoming weather conditions. These went on to be constructed in front of the restaurant and are now open to dinner parties of four or less from the same household.
Each dome is built out of 160 individual polycarbonate hexagons from Viking Dome, a Lithuanian company. San Fermo uses the Aura Dome™, created for winter weather dining and gathering. Each dome was about $4,350, with added costs of international shipping, customs, and labor.
But Baker knew the domes would pay for themselves in time. “We looked at it like, well, we'll just spend the last of our PPP [Payment Protection Program] money on building new domes, and they'll pay for themselves over the winter and we can keep people on the payroll,” Baker says.
Baker looks at “every table as a job that supports an employee,” so the additional tables in the bubbles have assisted in this and in “keeping the lights on” for San Fermo. But while the domes have helped the Italian restaurant stay in business, they have posed some problems as well.
As of November 16th, under Washington’s statewide COVID-19 guidelines, indoor dining is prohibited until at least December 14th. These new regulations were a result of the increased COVID cases and deaths in Washington.
San Fermo was prepared for these restrictions with their year-round outdoor dining patio, but their new domes were to abide by strict and specific Outdoor Dining Guidance regulations given by the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) Coronavirus (COVID-19) Prevention: General Requirements and Prevention Ideas for Workplaces, and the Washington State Department of Health Workplace and Employer Resources & Recommendations.
According to these requirements, “pods/igloos” must-have limited dining parties, cross ventilation capabilities, an airing out and sanitization process, and food delivery outside of the structure if possible.
Baker says San Fermo abides by these regulations and in some cases intensifies them, such as only seating dome dining parties of up to four members of the same household. San Fermo also does not allow its staff to enter the bubbles while guests are inside and eating. Instead, guests order through the plastic door and the server sets meals on a six-foot distanced table without entering the dome.
Some of these adjustments have been difficult for San Fermo’s servers. “Our employees are half server, half entertainer,” says Baker, “they want to engage with our guests and they have had to kind of lose that through COVID.”
Getting used to a barrier between themselves and guests is not the staff’s only challenge of the plastic dining spheres. “The staff is not crazy about having to manage a lot of propane equipment,” says Baker.
San Fermo goes through about one standard small gallon propane tank every week and a half. The restaurant uses propane to sanitize the dining bubbles after each party. The high power commercial propane heater works to exchange the air in about 10 minutes by using hot air to ventilate the dome, which is not airtight. After this ventilation, staff enters the bubble to further sanitize and wipe it down.
“We've taken all the safety measures very seriously,” says Baker, “We feel like the domes are by far the safest place we have been. Our biggest problem with them is they’re just too popular.”
The reservation and waitlist are filled with requests for the domes, but there are only nine tables in the restaurant total and two bubble tables. This has led to lots of dinner guest issues for the restaurant, with about 80% of customers with reservations being frustrated. While usually there is a table open on the patio for dining, which holds the seven non-bubble tables, diners choose to endure a wait for a dome.
“I think they’re just too iconic,” says Baker, “but, we just want to preserve an experience, we want to preserve what we do, we want to get to the other end of this pandemic, and we want to do it safely.”
While the future of the pandemic is uncertain, Baker has planned out the bubbles’ fate. They will remain out front of San Fermo for the winter and early spring months, as a way to dine outdoors in changing weather conditions.
In the summer, Baker will be using them as greenhouses at his farm up north to grow tomatoes in. But, they may be returning in the winter of 2021, based on COVID-19 development.
In the meantime, the domes remain first-come, first-serve at San Fermo in Ballard. Seattle’s other bubble dining locations include Maxilmilien in Pike Place Market and Canlis in Queen Anne.
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