How to Adapt Outdoor Restaurant Seating for Winter

Outdoor seating areas have always been a good revenue source for restaurants. Patios and similar arrangements were already popular before the COVID-19 pandemic convinced state legislatures to expand seating allowances to parking lots and even the streets. Some studies report that patio seating can grow your profits more than 30%, so it’s no wonder that restaurants are looking for other, similar solutions.

Of course, the pandemic has permanently changed how people dine out. Now more and more customers are turning to outside seating because it’s a safer option than dining indoors as long as proper protocol is followed. The only slight upside to the pandemic was that it occurred over the summer, when restaurants could move seating outside without too much hassle. Unfortunately, winter is coming.

What should restaurants prioritize?

The transition to outdoor seating is difficult enough without having to guard against bad weather too. When you winterize an outdoor seating area, you need to prioritize certain aspects of the experience:

  • Warmth. Install there’s portable or built-in heating solutions, fire pits, outdoor fireplaces or some other source of warmth. Also consider a temporary overhang, awning or other overhead covering to protect guests from the rain or snow. Roll-down or installable wall panels might also be a sound investment as long as you have natural air circulating to reduce the risk of COVID-19.
  • Comfort. There’s no point cultivating a space that nobody wants to sit in. Get comfortable furniture, nice lightning, interesting decor or install pretty landscaping to improve the atmosphere. Make customers more comfortable in the cold by implementing a policy allowing them to bring their own blankets, or even offer your own as long as they’re laundered between uses.
  • Experience. Just because there are all new precautions to follow doesn’t mean that you should sacrifice a superior customer experience. Enhance your guests’ time by adjusting a menu seasonally, creating fun wintery drinks, improving the music, adding lighting or creating a theme.
  • Safety. This needs to be your top priority. Even seating customers outdoors isn’t completely safe, which is why you should take extra steps like social distance, partitions, directed traffic flow with signs or arrows, tableside ordering capabilities and more.

How to make the change

Different restaurants have different capabilities and challenges unique to their business, location and customers. Deciding how to winterize your particular restaurant varies from entrepreneur to entrepreneur.

For example, if you live somewhere that experiences heavy snow all winter, it will cost more money and effort to prepare for the oncoming months than it would if you worked in a warm climate. You need to be realistic about your finances, too. Can you afford coverings, heaters, blankets and vented roofs? If not, you’ll need to pick and choose which are most important to your guests. Financial realism is even more vital than it was before the pandemic, because while the restaurant industry already struggled with profit margins in a good year, the pandemic has put undue additional strain on restaurants all around the country.

No matter what you want or even what you can afford, your plans also need to take space into consideration. Cities and states passed temporary laws over the summer allowing restaurants to set up tables in parking lots or even out on the streets, but these exemptions could end soon depending on where your business operates. If you do need to apply for an extension or additional licenses, start filling them out now because the process can take awhile, especially if applications flood in all at once as soon as it gets really cold. Figure out what you can realistically do within your restaurant and then make a plan to set it in motion safely and legally.

It’s not just your business that benefits from enabling outdoor seating year-round. Customers are growing restless in their homes, so giving them a safer option for dining out presents a chance to stretch their legs and spend some much-needed downtime with friends.

Winterizing your business won’t be easy. Between capacity caps, temperature checks, filtered air and structural changes, you’re facing a lot of challenges to make your restaurant welcoming, comfortable and profitable. Winter is coming, and creativity and flexibility will be key for any restaurant looking to succeed safely, effectively and satisfactorily.

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