Black-owned. Gay-managed. Kelly Clarkson-approved. Winter Wonderland, care of Shaw’s sausage joint HalfSmoke, is so cool, it’s hot.
Kicked off just in time for the winter solstice, this parking-lot pop-up took over a vacant 2,500-square-foot piece of pavement across from Howard Theater on T Street and Florida Avenue in December. HalfSmoke, dating from 2016, is a relaxed American-fare establishment sporting board games and a menu of sausages crafted over a wood-fired flame.
After working with the owner of the lot earlier in the year to host a Howard University homecoming event, HalfSmoke owner and founder Andre McCain seized on the opportunity to use the space to expand dining options at HalfSmoke during winter COVID-19 restrictions.
The expansive alfresco patio experience incorporates a dozen six-person cozy heated plastic igloos, and a handful of picnic tables set around propane heaters for a total capacity of more than 100 socially distant diners. Dotting the space are inflatable snowmen, fairy lights, and a whole lot of seasonal décor.
“We are very excited about the unique opportunity to create a safe and comfortable outdoor space that allows us to share new, inventive, and fun food and drink concepts,” says McCain.
The creative pop-up’s wintry trees and tinsel sparked both local and national attention, most notably from talk show host and American Idol Kelly Clarkson. On Jan. 27, 2021, Clarkson hosted Andre on her show, extolling the virtues of a restaurant able to arrive at “cool” concepts while constrained by regulations and the weather.
During the show, Clarkson said the concept looks like a “hell of a good time. I want to eat in an igloo.” At the end of the segment, noting McCain’s creativity, Clarkson awarded him $5,000.
Once snug inside the igloos, diners and game-players have four separate menus to order from. Not only is the regular HalfSmoke menu available, but diners can also check out the menu from Morning After Next, the restaurant’s all-day, every-day brunch concept that McCain launched in support of outdoor dining.
In addition, HalfSmoke’s morning-only virtual breakfast sandwich menu Butter Me Up, which launched in May 2020, as well as Get Social, a new virtual pizza pop-up that launched earlier this month, are also available.
To oversee and manage the launch of the pop-up McCain turned to Derek Smith, a veteran of the restaurant industry.
“McCain worked with the lot owner once again in anticipation of the winter spike in COVID-19 cases to use it as an outdoor dining room,” said Smith. “With winter and cold weather setting in, the igloos just seemed like the perfect way to use the space.”
To get the space off right, Smith set up the pop-up in a matter of days, installing everything from the electric lines to blow-up snowmen to ensure the igloos would be ready for the deep winter chill and the temporary complete ban on indoor dining. Of course, challenges remain today: moving food and drink from the HalfSmoke kitchen, more than a block away, proved a logistical challenge. Uneven pavement played havoc with plated dishes and craft cocktails. Internet service has also proven difficult, so servers send orders into the kitchen via text message.
“In normal years, the winter can sometimes get pretty bleak,” said McCain. “This year, with the challenges we are facing, we wanted to create a food and drink experience that will be uplifting for everyone to share.” He and Smith envisioned their own “version of Winter Wonderland after research of others around the country.”
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, HalfSmoke, like other restaurants, was forced to cease operations and pivoted to creative operations. McCain and his chefs launched Butter Me Up in May 2020 as “breakfast made to uplift.” Each order isn’t just an egg sandwich, but includes an “action card” of kindness, like reaching out to a neighbor “to bring people together,” he said.
Moving forward, Smith reports that the theme and décor will change with the seasons. Smith went all in for Christmas in December, transitioned to a more general winter concept for January, and February will see a Valentine’s Day theme.
In March, he says, the pop-up will transform to the new season – perhaps “florals for spring,” Smith says. After that, plans are still in the works.
Smith also says that HalfSmoke may host outdoor, socially distant events to support Capital Pride during Pride season. McCain added that “we are super excited about the opportunities 2021 will present for us to engage with the LGBTQ community as we look to rebound from the pandemic and bring people closer again.”
Smith recognizes that he, and HalfSmoke, have been pretty lucky. Counting the Wonderland pop-up space and the current 25% indoor capacity, as well as the restaurant’s small permanent patio, its current capacity is more than 175 people – making it one of the largest restaurants in the city.
For now, the igloos can be reserved online via the HalfSmoke website; it’s a $50 booking fee on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The pop-up is open daily 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.