You’re one of the millions of business owners who has invested in creating outdoor dining during the pandemic. With an on-brand ambiance and comfortable seating your “streetery” is just as vibrant as your indoor seating.
“For those restaurants where it’s possible to have outdoor dining, it’s been a saving grace,” says Alex Susskind, the director of the Cornell Institute of Food and Beverage Management. In 2020 many loyal customers were nervous about eating maskless in a poorly ventilated dining area.
To help restaurants stay financially afloat, local governments relaxed zoning restrictions and closed down lanes of road traffic. On the pavement, restaurants were able to expand their business to include outdoor seating. This allowed for a safe and customer-friendly environment to get restaurants up and running during the pandemic.
Pictured: Curbside restaurants in Portland, Maine. (Source)
But these streeteries remained in-demand even with the vaccine rollout in 2021. People simply enjoyed eating outside in the summertime.
However, as winter is approaching, will there continue to be enough demand for outdoor seating? Even if there is demand, will it be profitable for your business to keep this dining option operating?
Demand for off-season outdoor dining options largely depends on the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. The future of this illness is uncertain, as are the social restrictions along with it.
There is a general trend toward relaxation of COVID-19 mandates like mask wearing; yet, the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly. So will there be another lock down or are we safe to return to “the way things were before?” And how does this impact your business?
Despite the seeming drop in demand for outdoor seating, there are still plenty of people who are afraid to eat inside. The polling firm Morning Consult reports people are feeling more comfortable eating inside now compared to this summer. Yet, as of last week, one-third of adults will not eat inside due to COVID concerns.
Graph: Comfort dining out at restaurants by age. (Source)
Public opinion is expected to change quite a bit during the winter depending on the spread of the Omicron variant and development of other mutations.
However, if the vaccine does a good job at fending off these variants and we have a colder winter, more patrons will be indoors. “A lot of people need to rip the Band-Aid off,” says Jay Schmidt of Pisticci restaurant in Manhattan. “Minus-12 will do that.”
David Henkes, a restaurant-industry analyst at Technomic, predicts outdoor dining is “going to remain in play pretty significantly this winter,” he said, “even though the urgency probably isn’t there quite as much as last year.”
Most restaurant owners interviewed said that they plan to still serve customers outside this winter. However, they aren’t betting on this dining option to bring in much money as the urgency is not as high.
Stephanie Webster, the owner of Oakley Wines in Cincinnati, says she’s already set up heaters in the alleyway that abuts her restaurant. However, she’s having difficulty predicting how many of her patrons will actually want to dine in the cold this winter.
The Atlantic spoke to Webster when Cincinnati reached temperatures in the 40s, and she reports having only about one fourth of the demand for outdoor dining as she did last year at this time.
Pisticci, a neighborhood Italian restaurant in New York City, doubled its capacity by using outdoor dining during the pandemic. The restaurant’s manager, Jay Schmidt said that he will not be submitting his staff to especially cold nights this year.
Outdoor dining will close when temperatures reach the 20s in New York. “At a certain point, it becomes a staff safety issue,” Schmidt told the Atlantic. “I don’t want anyone slipping on the deck.”
Maintaining or upgrading your outdoor dining is expensive. You may already have heaters and outdoor furniture you can use from 2020. However, by now these outdoor sets and equipment may have weathered.
Also, utilities and gas have become so expensive that if a customer orders a $13 glass of wine and sits for an hour under a heater, your restaurant is losing money.
Outdoor seating is not the most profitable choice for every restaurateur. It’s important to understand the demand for outdoor seating in your area as well as your ROI on outdoor dining before committing to expansions or maintenance.
There are some restaurants who may have to pay increased fees to keep their “bike lane” outdoor eating operating. Or who find that not enough people are choosing to eat outside any more during the cold winter months. Their patrons feel safe enough to eat inside at this point in the pandemic and the restrictions are more relaxed.
Here are some general tips and guidelines from fellow restaurant owners on what they plan to do with outdoor seating (or lack thereof) this winter.
If you're banking on keeping your outdoor dining open this winter, it’s important to prepare your area for the colder temperatures to keep patrons comfortable. It’s not enough anymore to develop on threadbare blankets and wooden sheds from the beginning of the pandemic, says Henkes.
As a must, Restaurants planning to keep their space open need to have the setup and tools to keep customers warm.
For example, many restaurants use “igloos” (heated tents), heaters, electric blankets and hot cocktails. “We warm them up from the inside out,” says ThinkGoodGroup’s Chief Operating Officer Eric Martino.
Servers are taken care of, too, with insulated vests. Owners even encourage their staff to offer unique greetings for outdoor diners, including offers to adjust the heater.
Pictured: Outdoor heated igloos at Boston’s Lookout Rooftop bar. (Source)
It’s also important to bring a unique and on-brand aesthetic into your outdoor dining area. For example, a Bronx bar that set up outdoor eating in its parking spaces recreated the vibe of a subway car, decorating the outdoor walls with beautiful graffiti.
In Colorado, a restaurant got creative repurposing old gondola cars into heating mini outdoor dining rooms for large groups.
Some restaurants have come up with entirely new concepts for outdoor dining. In Alaska, Laura Cole and her son created ice-bowling alleys on the lake outside their restaurants with a champagne bar.
Lanes are formed with the help of snowblowers. “We’re a heartier bunch,” says Cole. Her dishes are designed for eating with gloved hands, including parsnip chips and lamb chops.
Some restaurateurs are even trying to break world records with outdoor seating. In Minnesota, Kate Nordstrum of the annual festival the Great Northern says she’s trying to create the world’s longest ice bar outside.
“We need to invigorate mind, body and soul,” says Nordstrum, “This is going to be a harsh season for our restaurant community.”
Sean Sherman also of Minnesota encourages restaurants to tailor their menus for outdoor eating. Serving certain foods at colder temperatures actually is ideal.
Look at serving highbush cranberries, sumac fronds and rose hips. As well, tea from cedar, pine and spruce trees adds flavors ideal for the cold weather.
Depending on the demand we see in 2022, outdoor seating may become a permanent installment at many restaurants. Alex Susskind of Cornell predicts post-pandemic outdoor dining won’t be year-round, but will open every year when the weather permits.
Each restaurant is unique and needs to listen to its customers and consult its profit and loss (P&L) sheet to decide if outdoor seating is profitable and matches their core audience's preferences.
It’s important to monitor other factors as well when making strategic business decisions like whether or not to keep outdoor dining this winter, including inventory, finances and staffing.
Finding the data to support these decisions can be messy and time-consuming. With POS platforms specifically designed for restaurants, ahem, like Revel Systems®, you’ll get immediate, actionable data, which will allow you to make quick and profitable business decisions. Find out more about Revel’s POS platform here.
Sarah Vancini is a marketing professional and founder of Stories with Substance, a marketing agency that provides marketing materials with a focus on product visualization to drive conversion.