September 17, 2020

Winter woes: What’s the plan when it’s too cold to dine outdoors?

At Lumen in Detroit, the patio igloos feature space heaters, an electric fireplace, and fresh air circulating through two open flaps in the back of the structure.

Restaurants recaptured some lost revenue during the last few months by opening patios, sidewalks, and parking lots for dining, but operators are now looking for ways to keep it going in the fall and winter.

Giving customers a way to dine at the restaurant without having to dine inside the restaurant is challenging even in good weather.

Operators are experimenting with myriad options, including heat lamps, warm tents, enclosed mini greenhouses and even patio igloos — transparent “bubbles” that reportedly circulate fresh air while keeping cold weather out.

Restaurants that can’t afford these options are looking at other solutions, including blanket service in cooler climes.

New research reports outdoor options are key

New National Restaurant Association research finds a majority of operators offer outdoor dining and plan to continue the service for at least another two months. Below are some key findings.

  • 74% of full-service and 60% of limited-service operators say their restaurant currently offers on-premises outdoor dining on a patio, deck or sidewalk.
  • On average, full-service operators say 44% of their restaurant’s daily sales now comes from on-premises outdoor dining. In the limited-service segment, operators say on-premises outdoor dining represents, on average, 25% of their current daily sales.
  • Restaurant operators say their restaurant will be able to continue to offer outdoor dining for a median of two more months, based on traditional weather patterns.
  • 49% of full-service and 25% of limited-service operators say they are taking actions to extend the outdoor dining season for their restaurants, including installing tents or patio heaters.
  • 77% of full-service and 65% of limited-service operators say they would likely take advantage of incentives — such as a tax credit — to help them purchase tents, patio heaters, etc., to extend the outdoor dining season.

To tent or not to tent

Dan Simons, co-owner of the Farmers Restaurant Group, which operates seven upscale casual Founding Farmers restaurants in Washington, D.C., Potomac, Md., Tysons Corner, Va., and King of Prussia, Pa., said he and his team are looking at ways to expand their outdoor dining offerings and accommodate customers who crave the restaurant experience, but not in dining rooms.

“We’re spending a lot of time brainstorming, exploring what we can afford, what we think will work for our guests,” he said. We’re looking at a combination of tents, heaters and lighting options, and determining what we can get permitted.”

Simons said a tent with roll-down sides or windows could be a solution as long as it remains “open” enough so people stay warm, while simultaneously retaining “an outside feel.”

He’s considering using forced-air heaters — typically electric — that would sit outside of the tents and blow warm air inside. His King of Prussia unit has a tent on the premises, so it will serve as the test. He plans to add the heaters there first. If successful, Simons said he would adopt the tent approach for the six other units.

But safety is the big concern with any kind of additional heaters; they come with strict safety instructions. Additionally, any enclosed outdoor structures need to circulate air and vent properly to ensure the air quality is safe as well as warm.

Climatized outdoor dining options require a lot of other considerations, too, according to Simons:

  • The location’s landlord needs to support the plan and provide permission for it.
  • The landlord might also consider helping with the cost of renting the outdoor dining equipment to offset some of the expense. According to Simons, heated tent rentals can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 per month. Helping subsidize anything that keeps an operation afloat could prevent landlords from having to search for a new restaurant tenant, a tough proposition during the pandemic.
  • Local jurisdictions would have to work fast and be sensible about how they issue permits allowing for these types of dining solutions.
  • The restaurant would need enough prospective diners to support the idea since the cost to offer these options can be prohibitive to the operator. Those costs not only include the purchase or rental of the tents, but also the cost of maintenance, safety, cleaning and insurance associated with their operation. “It isn’t as easy as it might seem,” Simons said.

Your igloo is ready

At Lumen, Detroit, restaurateur Scott LaPage invested in several patio igloos last year, well before the pandemic, because he was looking for a novel way to increase his sales during the cold winter months.

The move allowed him to increase his revenues during those months, and then the pandemic hit. Now, he believes they will help his business weather the COVID-19 storm by allowing parties of up to six people to dine in the igloo, which is outfitted with space heaters, an electric fireplace, and fresh air circulating through two open flaps in the back of the structure. Parties enter through a zippered door. Guests can relax for up to two hours inside the globes.

LaPage said each igloo, made of fiberglass rods and clear tent material, costs about $1,200, and is easy to assemble. It’s imperative to make sure your local jurisdiction allows these types of structures, especially with space heaters, he advises.

“We’ve been lucky in Detroit,” he said. “I think they’re trying to help us as much as they can, given what’s going on. In a few of our other locations, it’s not allowed. You have to check.”

The structures need to be easy to exit, have fire extinguishers on site, and the staff needs to deploy proper safety protocols in their service and between parties.

According to LaPage, the igloos, which accommodate two seatings a night, will be cleaned and sanitized between each use, and aired out for 20 minutes between parties.

Some other options, too

Operators who can’t install tents or igloos can do other things to extend outdoor dining, says Larry Reinstein, president of LJR Hospitality Ventures. Options for cool, but not frigid, climates include adding more space heaters and fire pits on patios, offering blankets for guests to use and then take home, and serving beverages, like hot chocolate or hot cider, when they arrive.

“Outdoor dining is definitely feasible this fall, but it will become more complicated as we move into the winter months, especially up North,” he said. “There will be success stories, but restaurants will have to be very creative.”