After submissions for the Winter Design Challenge closed on Labor Day, Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for Neighborhood & Economic Development, found himself surprised by the sheer volume of entries. More than 600 plans from 13 countries aim solve the problem of outdoor dining come winter and its unforgiving cold, wind and snow.

The submissions, the response to the City of Chicago’s challenge announced in late August, come from restaurant workers and owners, designer firms and architects, and everyday citizens. They’re heavy with heated tables, tents or geodesic domes, wintry versions of Taste and apps. (All are available for public viewing on the website of IDEO, a global design and consulting firm in partnership with the city, along with BMO Harris Bank and the Illinois Restaurant Association.)

Among the ideas:

Container alley: Calls for refurbishing shipping containers, then parking them on the street in front of restaurants.

Carhop dining: Draws inspiration from the vintage car hop, where diners can eat in their own cars at allocated parking lots, and meals would be brought out to an assigned number.

Magic school bus: Proposed turning unused school busses into micro-restaurants, allowing them to be a dining room or a mobile restaurant.

Leaf-blowers = win: Several entries were clearly jokes, some wonderfully comical, some snarky. One of the funniest: Leaf-blowers = win, which suggested the utilization of at least six leaf blowers to blow away the cold and snow, and “could also blow away the rona I guess.” Accompanied with the entry was a helpful drawing.

These four entries, plus another 639, must face a multi-layer review process on the way to a $5,000 cash prize to three winners. The first step is making sure the plans are feasible and practical while meeting the criteria. Judges will then determine if the remaining ideas can abide by city and fire codes before presenting the finalists to a final jury made up of the planning commissioner, the transportation commissioner, chefs, restaurant owners and restaurant workers.

“The reason why we’re moving so quickly is because we know that winter is coming and it’s so vital that we get these ideas launched and piloted over October," Mayekar said.

Many of the other proposals include technology-oriented solutions, like heated tables or geodesic domes with refined heat and ventilation systems. Others proposed shutting down public spaces to host restaurants for a rotating food festival or bringing back car hops. Many were variations on ideas of heated private spaces (such as igloos and domes already in limited use in Chicago), repurposing parks and developing apps to encourage people to continue eating outside.

Using cubicles from empty downtown office buildings, school buses and shipping containers were popular suggestions, with some proposals suggesting cubicles be re-used as dividers between guests, school buses host single parties, and shipping containers be turned into restaurant pop-ups. However, many of these raise the question of how small restaurants can afford them or in the case of the shipping container idea, where to put them.

A key design principle is making sure the finalists are not only scalable for large and small establishments, but also cost effective for businesses already struggling from the impact of the pandemic. Mayekar said they are looking to bring on corporate sponsors to come in and help support the build outs.

Despite all the submissions and potential for solutions, Mayekar said this is just part of the city’s attempt at helping alleviate the many obstacles the hospitality industry is facing. He hopes that the announcement of the various ideas will help usher in a cultural change, accompanied by relevant marketing, to encourage Chicagoans to “step out of hibernation mode and embrace the outdoors in the winter.”

“This design challenge is just one lever that needs to be pulled to support our hospitality community,” Mayekar said. “There’s only so much a municipality can do. We’re going to do everything we can, but we also need federal support with more relief. We really hope Washington will deliver that ... There’s no silver bullet. We don’t want to convey that this is the answer. It’s an important part of the recipe, but we need several other ingredients and we need stakeholders in Washington to help.”

gwong@chicagotribune.com

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