The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced restaurants in Chicago and across the nation to find creative ways to stay afloat, especially with fluctuating indoor dining restrictions. As winter approaches, with its cold temperatures and chilling winds, these establishments face an even tougher challenge.

To address this, the city of Chicago launched a design competition to gather innovative ideas for keeping outdoor dining viable through the harsh winter months. The goal was to find solutions that would allow restaurants to continue serving customers safely, despite the cold weather.

The Kotatsu-Inspired Design

One of the winning designs came from Ellie Henderson, a 41-year-old designer who was inspired by her time living in Japan. The design takes cues from the traditional kotatsu, a unique heated table used in Japanese households for warmth during winter.

Historically, kotatsu tables are low to the ground, with a heating element beneath and a heavy blanket or quilt draped over the top to trap heat. Henderson’s idea was to adapt this design for a more Western dining context, raising the height to match typical restaurant tables while maintaining the heat-trapping properties.

Henderson’s kotatsu-inspired table aims to provide a warm space for diners without needing to heat large outdoor areas, which can be energy-intensive. This approach offers a practical solution for Chicago’s restaurants as they navigate the winter season under COVID-19 restrictions.

Chicago in winter

The Competition and Its Winners

The design competition organized by Chicago attracted over 600 submissions, each proposing unique ways to keep outdoor dining going through winter. The winners were awarded a cash prize of $5,000 to help them develop their ideas further.

In addition to Henderson’s kotatsu-inspired design, other winning entries included adjoining cabins that restaurants could set up outside and modular blocks featuring booths with built-in space heaters. These designs offer a range of options to help Chicago’s restaurants stay operational during the colder months.

Chicago’s Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot emphasized the city’s commitment to supporting restaurants through the pandemic, stating that as the winter season approaches, it’s crucial to provide establishments with the tools they need to continue serving their communities.

The design competition and its innovative winners demonstrate the city’s proactive approach to helping local businesses adapt to the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19.

The Impact of Outdoor Dining

Outdoor dining has become a lifeline for many restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing them to serve customers while adhering to safety guidelines and capacity restrictions. This strategy has helped countless establishments maintain revenue and keep staff employed despite limited indoor dining.

In cities like New York, outdoor dining has proven so successful that Mayor Bill de Blasio extended outdoor dining allowances indefinitely. He estimated that this move saved approximately 100,000 jobs, demonstrating the critical role outdoor dining plays in supporting the restaurant industry during challenging times.

The success of outdoor dining has inspired other cities to explore similar solutions, with local governments providing support through relaxed regulations and financial incentives. These efforts underscore the significance of innovative approaches to keeping businesses operational during the pandemic.

Snowy Chicago park

Future Plans for the Design

Ellie Henderson’s Kotatsu-inspired design is one of three concepts selected for piloting in Chicago to help restaurants continue outdoor dining during the winter. The Illinois Restaurant Association will work with local construction firms to further develop the design and create prototypes for testing. This process aims to ensure the design is practical, efficient, and safe for use in outdoor dining settings.

Financial support for these pilot projects comes from various sources. DoorDash, a leading food delivery company, has pledged $500,000 to support Chicago-area restaurants in their winterization efforts. This funding is part of a larger $2 million initiative aimed at helping restaurants across the nation adapt to the colder months.


Innovative solutions like Henderson’s kotatsu-inspired design are essential to helping restaurants overcome the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and Chicago’s harsh winter weather. These creative approaches not only offer practical ways for restaurants to continue serving customers but also provide a blueprint for other cities seeking similar solutions.

As Chicago restaurants brace for colder temperatures and ongoing pandemic-related restrictions, the success of these designs could play a pivotal role in keeping businesses open and vibrant. With continued support from local authorities, the Illinois Restaurant Association, and private sector partners, restaurants can remain resilient and find new ways to thrive in these unprecedented times.

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The Fintecology Editorial Team is comprised of a diverse group of business-minded, tech enthusiasts and experts, dedicated to bringing you the most accurate, insightful, and up-to-date information. With a collective passion for technology and innovation, our team ensures each article meets rigorous standards of quality and relevance. We strive to demystify complex technological and business concepts, making them accessible to everyone, from curious beginners to seasoned professionals.

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