What Happened to the Igloos?
Last winter, when retail districts were scrambling to lure restaurant patrons during the depths of the pandemic, they turned to igloos. The heated, plastic domes that appeared on sidewalks from 50th Street in Edina to Lake Street in Wayzata were intended to provide a safe space for people to gather for a meal or a drink without going inside. But then the Covid-19 cases got worse, prompting the governor to tighten dining restrictions, and the igloos—which cost $1,500 a pop—were reduced to life-size snow globes, filled with art to be viewed from afar.
Now, with restrictions lifted and the igloos paid for, some businesses are trying to leverage them as a premium winter activity.
Ninetwentyfive restaurant in Wayzata is taking reservations for “winter igloo experiences” featuring a six-course menu including champagne and lobster, $425 to $500 for parties of four. The restaurant also sold igloo sponsorships to wine and spirit vendors: Inside the “Clicquot in the Snow” igloo, champagne accompanies the grilled seafood tower. The “Winter Wonderland” igloo experience includes Belvedere Vodka cocktails served by a fire, followed by venison tartare.
Each igloo is furnished with sleek sofas, chairs, string lights, and matching accent pillows. Nothing about it should remind customers of Covid restrictions, said Ninetwentyfive general manager Cindy Tlaiye. But, she added, the elevated indoor/outdoor experience does offer an excellent option for those still cautious about dining inside a restaurant.
“They’re meant to be a perfect setting for a family gathering or small work outing,” Tlaiye said.
In downtown Hastings, Lock & Dam Eatery turned its patio into a village of illuminated igloos for outdoor winter dining. New Prague’s Next Chapter Winery is selling “wine globe packages” that start at $50 for 90 minutes inside the bubble.
But many of the igloos purchased last year with federal relief aid by neighborhood districts like downtown Hopkins, Excelsior, and 50th & France will go unused the winter.
“They’re fairly complex to set up,” said Jen Weiss, executive director of the Excelsior Lake Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce, which had to scrap its 2020 plans for ski chalet-themed igloo experiences. “Plus, it’s Minnesota winter, so the plastic can crack in cold weather.”
In 2020, when Hennepin County received federal relief aid from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, it hired St. Paul non-profit Forecast Public Art to create ideas and strategies to bring people back to business districts. After a competitive application process for funding, 11 districts received marketing assistance and five received assistance in reimagining their public spaces. The selected districts were Robbinsdale, Hopkins, Wayzata, Excelsior, and 50th & France.
Forecast Public Art conducted focus groups with business owners in the selected districts to better understand their pain points, according to Jen Krava, director of programming. The group drew inspiration from public space activations around the world, which led to the purchase of the igloos.
“In Amsterdam, restaurants were using greenhouses,” Krava said. “We had seen retail and entertainment businesses use these igloos in cities like Chicago and New York.”
But several Twin Cities districts that received igloos seem more inclined to return to pre-pandemic traditions like outdoor choir concerts pop-up shopping markets.
“As far as igloos go, I think we’re on a pause right now,” Excelsior’s Weiss said. “We want to make our business owners’ lives easier, not more complex.”
The igloos won’t make sidewalk appearances in downtown Hopkins or at 50th & France in Edina, either. Robbinsdale will feature an art installation inside one igloo on its main downtown plaza, but nothing more.
Judy Johnson, director of the 50th & France Business Association, said she’s grateful for the role the igloos played in fostering a sense of community last winter.
“The igloos gave people a reason to get outside, even though it was freezing cold,” Johnson said. “Our community is a family that has gone through a lot. Now we’re coming back stronger than ever.”