Outdoor dining has been one of the great success stories during the pandemic, as restaurants have been at the vanguard of cozy and creative open-air setups.

Challenging conditions can often be a driver of creative change. In the restaurant industry, there’s a fine line between familiarity and adaptability – operators want to build a brand that rewards repeat visits while remaining flexible in the face of unpredictable circumstances.

As the pandemic made indoor dining all but an impossibility early on, restaurants were quick to use everything at their disposal to shift dining rooms outside, demonstrating remarkable innovations that kept the entire industry afloat. With the understanding that most of you all have navigated the al fresco landscape in one way or another, here are some things to keep in mind while prepping patios and outdoor spaces for the colder months.

Optimize Surroundings

Depending on where you are located, outdoor permitting is going to vary. But in most cases, the process to establish an al fresco space has been relaxed. Take as much advantage of that as is possible within your budget and staffing. Sidewalks, parking lots, side lots, lawns, any entrance ways – these all present opportunities to extend your dining room and add seats.

Be creative – diners love to go to restaurants because, in addition to the food, they get to socialize in funky and cool atmospheres that feel like an escape. Whether it’s a few two-seat tables, communal seating, even cushioned benches or hay bales, a few innovative touches can make all the difference. With an impressive array of tents, stalls, yurts, igloos, and domes, restaurants, at times, looked like they were providing a glimpse into the future of dining. Well, that future is here. Along with heaters and fire pits, do your due diligence on these outdoor designs to determine what’s feasible for you. Sometimes, up-front costs can result in amazing payoffs down the line.

Invest in Brand Décor

Okay, so you’ve got a plan for adding outdoor space. Extend that creativity to branding décor touches that enhance and build on what makes your restaurant special. Be sure that your place settings and table tops share design concepts with your inside dining room. Or, if you decide to give the al fresco area a different feel from the rest of your place, at least have an ambience with a purpose.

Lighting, music, and entertainment should also build on your brand. Using light to convey the mood of your concept may be more important than any other aesthetic detail. Add festive murals from local artists or use walls to project games during sporting events. Live music can also enhance the notion of your spot as a social gathering place, attracting more guests than you might have imagined during chillier nights. Consider using decorative touches to coincide with events and holidays like state fairs, Halloween, “Friendsgiving,” rivalry football games, Christmas, anything that brings groups together.

And you must have a plan in place to combat the cold. Tent-like structures, barriers, plants — heck fall festival elements such as pumpkins, hay bales, or old wood doors from antique stores can provide some respite from the brisk air. Offering single-use blankets, individual, disposable heat packs, and hot towels can help keep the crowd warm as well.

Outdoor Adjustments

Despite being a different layout from the dining room, you will still want to manage outdoor seating with the same digital reservation or operating system. Just because it may seem more informal, you don’t want to miss out on maximizing seating opportunities or turning over tables for the next wave of guests. Our One Source Solution Partners have a range of affordable and efficient tech options to help you get the most out of traffic to your outdoor space.

Ensure that your menu reflects the chillier conditions and go heavy on warm, comfort dishes to get guests feeling cozy. There are a wealth of easy-to-serve ideations in soup, Italian and Hispanic fare, and spicy seasonings to heat up both patrons and fall/winter margins. And don’t overlook your beverage menu. Alcohol numbers have continued to be on the rise, and this is the perfect time of year to experiment with hot drinks that give adults a little extra pep in their step. If costs are a concern, you may also want to consider paring back outdoor menus, offering al fresco diners a focused list of comfort food, snacks, drinks, or specials they can’t access anywhere else.

To this point, operators have done an incredible job opening their guests up to the great outdoors. And with COVID cases hopefully declining and folks looking for places to gather in the fall and winter months, there is a new frontier available for al fresco. Take advantage of outdoor dining opportunities and keep traffic flowing during this crisp, cool season.

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