Restaurant Winterization Amid COVID

With months of shut down, public anxiety over dining out, and capacity limitations, the restaurant industry has been among those most affected by COVID-19. This year has undoubtedly been challenging, but luckily the industry has been able to get creative and continue operating — from expanding patios into nearby streets or pivoting to an entirely new business models. But with winter fast approaching, many operators are looking for ways to keep outdoor dining alive.

According to research from the National Restaurant Association, full-service restaurants say 44% of their daily sales now come from on-premises outdoor dining and 49% of full-service operators say they are taking actions to extend the outdoor dining season for their restaurants, including installing tents or patio heaters. Outdoor dining has helped restaurants offset their lost revenue, but what will dining look like as the weather turns colder?

Outdoor Dining Options and Considerations

Restaurants are experimenting with a range of different options, including heaters, tents, mini-greenhouses, even igloos, many of which are costly and not available to all. For the restaurants that are not able to afford those solutions, they are looking at alternatives, such as blanket service.

Dan Simons, co-owner of the Farmers Restaurant Group, which operates several upscale casual restaurants in the DMV and Pennsylvania, says he is focused on tents as a means of giving customers the restaurant experience without having to dine inside the restaurant.

Keeping the tent open but diners warm is one of the many challenges of his plan. Simons is considering using forced-air heaters that would sit outside the tent and blow warm air inside. But heaters are not without risk. They come with strict safety instructions, and outdoor structures need to vent properly to ensure not only warm, but safe air.

According to Simon’s there are numerous other considerations beyond those mentioned, such as cost, permits, approval from landlords, and enough diners who support the idea.

In notoriously chilly Detroit, restauranteur Scott LaPage has been finding new ways to dine outdoors in the winter even before the pandemic. Last year, he purchased several patio igloos made of fiberglass rods and clear tent material. LaPage’s igloos are outfitted with space heaters, an electric fireplace, and fresh air circulating through two open flaps in the back of the structure, and each igloo holds up to six people. Each igloo costs roughly $1,200 and is easy to assemble. Like Simons, LaPage warns that restaurant operators check with their local jurisdiction before implementing their winter solution.

For cooler climates, outdoor dining this winter is much more feasible. They can offer guests blankets to use and take home, or encourage them to bring their own, add more heaters or fire pits, or serve hot beverages upon arrival. As the winter months approach, Northern restaurants are going to need to get very creative to weather the storm.