Unfortunately for these hard-working professionals, Mother Nature is putting them on defense in all but the southernmost parts of the country. The weather is cooling down and uncomfortable temperatures lie ahead. With an end to the pandemic nowhere in sight (and cases flaring up in states like Wisconsin), one question on restaurant owners’ minds is whether to send their customers indoors for the winter or strategize ways to keep them outside.
Grub Street summarized the challenges presented by the changing of the seasons. Although the following paragraph pertains to New York City—where by law dining must occur outside until September 30, when restaurants can resume indoor service at up to one-quarter capacity—these problems cross city and state borders:
Operators who spoke to Grub Street say reopening at 25 percent capacity does not by itself solve their problems. It allows for social distancing among diners but can’t promise total safety, especially among staff. Standard kitchen-safety protocol does not usually encompass the dangers of inhaling the air. Twenty-five percent capacity lets restaurants recoup some fraction of their pre-pandemic business but often not enough to break even, let alone come out ahead. Meanwhile, the rent continues to come due.
About half of full-service operators plan to draw out the 2020 outdoor dining season for as long as possible, according to the National Restaurant Association. The NRA found, on average, 44% of full-service operators’ daily restaurant sales come from outdoor dining.
There are items on the market to help outdoor dining continue.
- The most basic solutions include electric space heaters and blankets (the latter being hygienic if customers get to keep the blankets or bring their own from home).
- Installations that could require more coordination but could work include fire pits and rental tents.
- Highly complex options include greenhouses and igloo domes for small groups. Restaurants have adopted these fixtures in recent years as premium rental units. It is unlikely a restaurant could afford to purchase a whole yard’s worth of these $1,000-some igloos and expect to serve the number of customers they would on a busy Friday night without igloos, but by charging users a rental fee, they could make up lost revenues for fewer food sales.
Restaurants could also enclose their existing outdoor patios by installing window panels or blinds. If they enclose it too much, however, they risk turning the space into a glorified indoor dining room. Ventilation is crucial to prevent spread of the virus. Leaving openings for air flow and, again, installing space heaters create a comfortable semi-outdoor space.
Some restaurants may find it easier to bring all of their business inside. They may turn to socially distanced indoor dining if they haven’t been doing it already. By taking safety measures such as reducing their seating capacity to 25–50%, spacing out the tables and alternating booths, they can reduce the virus’ spread.
Alternatively, they could return to the takeout-only practices they mastered last spring. The difference now is states are not under governor’s orders forbidding on-site dining. One establishment reverting to the less-profitable, takeout-only approach could fall behind its competitors quickly.
The City of Chicago is among those working to develop an answer to this wintertime dilemma. Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched a public design challenge to think up “innovative outdoor dining solutions that adhere to COVID-19 protocols.” The hundreds of entries included fire pits in the center of tables, portable “StreetPod” structures that fit inside parking stalls, space heaters underneath blanketed tables (common in households abroad), and heated light-up stools. The top ideas will be announced in early October. Perhaps it will be the creativity of Chicagoans that helps keep American restaurants in business through next year and beyond.