Make the Most of Outdoor Seating

Since the COVID-19 pandemic touched down in the USA, the foodservice industry’s very foundations have shifted. From business owners to waitstaff to the customers themselves, everyone’s expectations about dining out have shifted. Restaurants have had to get creative, which was made slightly easier by states and local districts hastening the path for restaurants to move seating outdoors in compliance with evolving COVID-19 restrictions.

Restaurants struggle to find any semblance of normalcy in indoor eating as of late; depending on what stage of reopening their state is in, they may only be allowed 25-50% capacity inside, which frankly is the smart move but not very good for business. Other states banned indoor dining completely. Overall, the restaurant industry’s sales fell by billions of dollars throughout the few three months of the pandemic and as a result, restaurants started to look for ways to push their services outside.

Common Policies

Mandates vary by state, but there are some regulations about outdoor seating that commonly recur:

  • Keep tables six feet apart at all times. No moving or combining tables or chairs. In some states, this distance is shorter as long as there’s a divider between the tables that can be easily cleaned or replaced.
  • Guests, staff, and everyone else need to wear masks at all times. Some states allow patrons to take them off while they’re seated, while others mandate keeping them on unless you’re eating or drinking.
  • Temperature checks are required for everyone, staff and guests alike, who come onto the premises.
  • Maximum party sizes. The limit tends to vary between four and ten people per table.
  • Reservations are required, or at least strongly recommended. This discourages crowds and queues.
  • Some states permit bar seating, but many have banned it, even if it’s outdoors. People would still be eating and drinking close to the bartender as well as other patrons’ drinks.

Local governments are waiving fees, accelerating permit applications, and generally making exceptions so that restaurants can make these changes quickly. They’re hoping to make up for months of little profit, avoid more uncertainty, and escape the fate of all their fellow restaurants that closed for good. Restaurants have a chance to get back to work.

Setting Up Your Space

Now that you have the proper permits and an idea of where you want to set up your outdoor seating, you can begin actually moving your dining area there. As states reopened, closed, and reopened in different stages throughout the summer, restaurants learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t, and what they want their city to help out with.

For restaurants that already have outdoor seating areas or a patio, they were a little better prepared to shift more tables outside and expand the area that already existed. If you always wanted to put in a patio but never got around to it for whatever reason, now is a great time to do it.

Restaurants without a lawn or patio have found other workarounds for the problem. Some converted their parking lot after blocking it off and getting permission from the state. Even more ingenious, some partnered with other local businesses in the area, many of whom had to shut down because of the pandemic as well, and began renting out their parking lots for cars to use while the restaurant repurposed their own. It’s a win-win for two struggling businesses to have a chance to earn some money.

Depending on where you’re located, you might also be able to section off the sidewalks and alleys around the restaurant as long as you get permission from the city. Some places even blocked off vehicle traffic so that restaurants could put tables in the street; if that’s what you want to do, link up with other restaurants in the area and petition your local government to allow it. In suburbia, some have lawn space ample enough to use instead. Different still, certain restaurants (with permission from their landlord and government, of course) have been able to repurpose their roof for the tablespace. This is cool for customers, too, who will enjoy the uncommon experience and beautiful views.

What Comes Next?

Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict what turn this pandemic will take next or what legislation will crop up in reaction, however it seems safe to say that America isn’t getting out of these woods any time soon. The rules are constantly changing, which means that as restaurants develop new policies and strategies for staying alive, they also need to integrate flexible alternatives so they can pivot at the drop of a hat—or risk a potential fallout as bad as the one that happened in March.

Also stay aware that the seasons will soon change, too. All the outdoor accommodations that you made for the summer are about to give way to colder weather. Depending on where you live, this could decimate all the plans you made when you hoped that COVID-19 would be a distant memory by now. Getting some kind of covering or a space heater might help keep guests warm in the coming months, and thus keep them coming back to you.

Just because dining out is, well—really dining out now, doesn’t mean you have to forgo everything that makes your restaurant unique. Find ways to bring your signature look outside, setting the ambiance with the furniture, decorations, and even table umbrellas that show off your brand creatively. As you continue to comply with COVID-19 policies that make everybody safer, there’s no reason that your restaurant can’t maintain its same strong brand identity just because your customers and service meet outside for now.

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