Create conditions that will help extend outdoor dining into the winter.
As if the last few years haven't thrown enough curveballs, now we’ve got one that’s, well, as common as the changing seasons. Temperatures are dropping and with demand high for outdoor tables to compensate for limitations on indoor seating, the scramble is on for ways to mitigate the coming chill.
Even on only mildly chilly evenings, tables and chairs made of highly conductive or dense materials will work to take the heat out of your diners. The concrete benches or metal tables and chairs have served well during the warmer months but now might double as cooling strips for glasses of craft beer. Wooden furniture is much less conductive and can help mitigate the issue but switching out a big chuck of your fixtures might not be in the cards — or the budget.
Wrapping your furniture might be a better way to deal with the issue and don’t forget to take your mother’s advice from way back — layers will help keep you warm. Think one or two layers of thick insulating material and an outer layer of water-resistant plastic or vinyl — all the better to wipe down and sanitize in between guests.
Having a stock of simple blankets to hand out to needy guests couldn’t possibly generate more goodwill on a cold night. Just be sure to map out the logistics. In the age of COVID, it would be wise not to re-use blankets between guests so either ensure there are enough blankets to get through a night or, if you have a washer/dryer onsite, perform a quick wash and dry through the night.
Guests might also welcome access to stocking hats and gloves, but such items might accidentally get taken home, making such a loaner program too expensive. Having a stock of similar items with your restaurant branding sold at a minimum mark-up might be a great solution to cut the chill and generate a little advertising.
Mushroom style heaters have been a patio staple for years now with one of the few complaints being they take up too much space between tables. With current spacing recommendations, however, that negative becomes a positive in helping define bubbles around each table.
Conversely, fire tables and pits tend to bring people together which in the age of social distancing can be problematic. Defining spaces around the fire or limiting the area to one group will help avoid cross mingling of different parties.
Winter winds and gusts can make an otherwise tolerable evening intolerable. Strategic placing of plants and barriers can help mitigate while also creating defined spaces to encourage social distancing and, perhaps, bring a little more life to a parking lot turned dining room. In creating these, you’re only really limited by your imagination. Fall themes might be as simple as bales of hay stacked up, while decorated evergreen boughs will help instill the Christmas spirit. Even funky DIY screens made with PVC pipe and stretched plastic or even shower curtains can cut the wind and help add a little whimsy.
Wind and cold aren’t the only enemies to a busy Saturday night, the threat of rain can ruin a night and leave your till empty. Umbrella design has come a long way with literal half-moon umbrellas that fit flush against a wall for a cozy deuce or larger retractable umbrellas that can keep four of five tables dry.
Many restaurants have opted for large party tents to cover huge outdoor spaces. Weighing costs and needs will determine whether you rent or buy. Renting from a party company gives your access to expertise and freedom from upkeep and wear but the monthly fee will add up. Buying means a big upfront cash outlay, but if you plan on keeping the space covered for the foreseeable future, it might be the more economical choice.
Other solutions might be rope and pulley systems with brightly colored tarps or canvases. These could range from simple wooden posts and square tarps to strategically placed metal beams and hyper-stylized and colorful overlapping pieces of water-proof fabric that channel the water away from your guests.
If you follow Pinterest, you might have caught the latest trend in COVID-era dining — individual greenhouses. These can range from simple plastic and pipe tents to fancy, traditional glass and iron greenhouses. Great for small parties or large, these have the added advantage of allowing the guests to control the heat or even the music.
Depending on the design, little greenhouses can also help protect your staff from exposure with little serving slots to pass food and drink through to the other side.
Cold Weather Service
Depending on your outdoor set-up, you might want to take a quick review of your menu. If you’re able to mitigate most of the wet, cold, and wind then little might be needed. If there’s still a lot of exposure, then some tweaking might be in order. Flat, open plates with traditional plating might allow the food to go tepid too quickly. High walled bowl-like plates with the food more closely packed together can help retain heat. Fried foods or easily handled items like hand pies might be loosely wrapped in cloth to allow steam to escape so they can stay warm without getting soggy.
Above all else, don’t forget to create a selection of hot drinks, both alcoholic and not, that can be served in large, heavy mugs. Because the last thing you want is diners asking for the check when they can’t stop shivering, instead, you’ll have them posting smiling social media shots over those steaming mugs.