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Over the last few months, government restrictions and public concerns about safety and social distancing have led the restaurant industry to rely heavily on outdoor dining. While al fresco dining brought in enough customers to keep the doors open in the summer months, winter is bringing new challenges to the many restaurants now dependent on outdoor dining.
The winter weather is expected to reduce consumer spending on outdoor dining by at least 4 percent. Combined with the increased costs of providing outdoor dining in winter, it is clear that restaurants need cost-effective solutions to the following three challenges this winter.
The most obvious challenge of winter for outdoor dining is the weather itself. The cold, wind, and rain can dampen both your customer’s dining experience and their food itself. Outdoor heating won’t cut it for the whole winter, and it’s also going to be expensive, with the cost of propane and other fuels expected to go up in response to demand. As a result, providing outdoor shelter is a must; however, there can be complications here.
The demand and cost for temporary shelter such as tents has risen sharply in response to the issue. Since tents don’t retain heat well, keeping them warm can be expensive. Additionally, some regions require outdoor shelter to have at least one open side, letting the elements in and the heat out.
Semi-temporary structures like igloos and cabanas can help tackle these issues, such as those introduced by The Barn Restaurant, adding outdoor capacity for 26 people across 5 tables for a cost of £12,000.
Smaller, per table structures retain heat more efficiently and cost less to build than commercial tent rentals. However, providing individual shelters per table takes up more space. Some restaurant owners, such as those in Washington DC, have successfully petitioned local authorities to pedestrianize streets, enabling them to expand their outdoor areas. This option is not available to everyone, and in dense urban areas, it could cause supply logistics and food delivery issues.
Wherever an outdoor area can’t be completely sheltered, decorations like plants can serve as barriers to shield guests from the wind. Your outdoor furnishings can also make a difference. Metal tables and chairs might be convenient and durable for outdoor use, but they are also excellent heat conductors. That means they will take all the warmth out of your guests the moment they sit down. Materials with better insulating properties like wood are a warmer alternative. Many restaurants are also providing blankets to keep diners cozy outdoors. Of course, these need to be freshly laundered for each guest.
It is important to remember that your guests won’t be the only ones dealing with the cold. You and your staff will be going out into the cold constantly every night, and so will the food. Because of this, you should think about relaxing your dress code to wrap up warm instead, as well as keeping food warm and covered on its way to customers.
As colder weather sets in, outdoor dining has less appeal for consumers. With limited indoor seating, and many people worried about the safety of dining inside, this could result in another reduction of customers. However, with the right approach, you can present winter outdoor dining as a unique and differentiated experience instead of a compromise.
Consumers are just as uncertain as you about where and how they will dine out this winter. This is why it’s so important to communicate your offerings and safety standards to guests. Use your social media, SMS mailing list, and customer loyalty program to tell customers about your plans to provide a great outdoor dining experience. Given that you may have further reduced your seating outdoors to ensure guests will be comfortable, use text alerts to send SMS booking reminders, and advertise last-minute table vacancies. It is vital to make the most efficient use of the limited capacity you still have.
This can start with the food and drinks themselves, by adding more warming winter dishes to the menu. Think about replacing or altering menu items that will get cold quickly. While you don’t want to rush your guests, you might also change dishes that take longer to eat, as this is more time for them to cool off (and for your guests to remain seated past their reservation time).
Events like live music or themed food and drink nights can elevate the outdoor dining experience and entice more people to brave the cold by making their visit more memorable. Plus, outdoor music can be a great way to advertise your business to passersby. Your signage should also ensure everyone walking past knows you’ve made provisions for comfortable dining throughout winter. That goes for digital signage too; update your landing page to introduce your winter outdoor dining plans.
Even with outdoor heating and shelters, it is still going to get too cold to continue serving outside in some regions. This is especially true if local restrictions prevent you from providing adequate shelter or you have limited space for guests. For restaurants in this situation, alternatives to outdoor dining are needed:
Many consumers have preferred to dine outside this year because they feel safer, but it remains to be seen how many will avoid indoor dining when the prospect of eating outdoors stops being an option. Reiterating your health precautions can give customers the confidence to come back inside again, primarily if you have implemented conveniences like mobile app ordering and digital menus to minimize contact. Your reduced capacity limits will make easy reservations an essential factor, so use a reservation system to ensure getting a table is as hassle-free as possible.
If you haven’t already started offering delivery and takeout, this winter is a great time to start. Offering delivery and pickup lets you keep serving your local customers without exceeding capacity limits and could be a vital lifeline for businesses unable to provide outdoor dining. 60 percent of 18-34 year olds have increased their frequency of ordering food this year, and significant portions of other age groups have done the same. This means that delivery and takeout should be at the top of your priority list as the weather turns colder.
Most restaurants will need to make changes to continue outdoor dining or seek other ways to keep serving customers. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what may or may not work for your business. It is difficult to predict how consumers will respond to the unprecedented situation this winter, but that doesn’t mean restaurants can’t take steps to encourage customers to visit to help drive revenue for their businesses.