As temperatures dip and the city’s infamous wind kicks up, Chicago’s restaurants are looking for ways to provide outdoor dining in the face of a harsh winter. An unusual solution from Japan might help solve the city’s outdoor dining woes.
Enter the kotatsu: a special heated table common in Japanese households. In Japan, kotatsu are often coffee-table height and have a heating element underneath. A duvet-like blanket extends from the edges of the table, trapping heat.
Ellie Henderson, a 41-year-old designer who won a $5,000 prize for the submission, took inspiration from her time as an English teacher in Japan. She lived in the remote town of Mabi for two years, where she relied on the kotatsu in her apartment for warmth in the wintertime.
“I became quite addicted to sitting in it in winter,” Henderson said in an interview with Business Insider. “I found it hard to get out from under it.”
Across the country, outdoor dining has been a saving grace for restuarants. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio estimated that outdoor dining saved 100,000 jobs and extended its outdoor dining allowances, originally set to end October 31, indefinitely, according to prior Business Insider reporting. But as the weather turns cold, restuarants are anxious to find solutions. In September, Slate reported that there was already shortage of outdoor space heaters.
In her submission, Henderson adapted the design to be the height of a western table, rather than the low coffee-table height found in Japanese households. Other contest winners included adjoining cabins that restaurants could erect outside and modular blocks with booths and space heaters.
“As we approach the winter months and adapt our COVID-19 response accordingly, we owe it to our restaurants to make sure they have what they need to continue keeping their doors open and serving their communities,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot in a statement.
Henderson’s design is different, she says, in that it would adapt a restaurant’s existing furniture, rather than requiring a new structure to be built. In addition, the design traps heat underneath the table, rather than radiating out into the cold air, cutting down on energy costs.
“Traditionally, in Japan, they would heat the body instead of heating the air,” said David L. Howell, a professor of Japanese history at Harvard University, in an interview with Business Insider. Even now, most Japanese homes don’t have central heating, Howell said.
Kotatsu tables originated in Zen temples during the middle ages, Howell said. Today, they are especially common in old homes and are traditionally located in the living room over a sunken area of the floor. Families watch television or play games from the comfort of a kotatsu.
“It seems like a clever adaptation of old technology,” Howell said. “I think it’s a very good idea. Chicago is very cold.”
Now, Henderson’s idea, as well as two others, will be piloted with the goal of helping winterize the city’s restaurants. The Illinois Restaurant Association will select local construction firms to develop the designs further and construct prototypes to be tested. Delivery company DoorDash has announced that it will be giving $500,000 in grants to help Chicago-area restaurants winterization efforts, as part of a larger $2 million effort in cities across the nation.