As temperatures cool across parts of the country, the restaurant industry is wondering: “How do we maintain social distancing when there’s a foot of snow on the patio?”
COVID-19 has forced restaurants and foodservice operations to adapt like never before. Outdoor seating in the autumn and winter months will be another challenge to keep customers safe without sacrificing more table count.
Here’s the good news: For many restaurants in colder climates, outdoor seating strategies have been in place before COVID-19 requirements. This will apply to more operations as most local governments have extended outdoor seating zoning and even helped create more opportunities to keep restaurants serving in the snow.
Sonia Kniehl, general manager of La Bocca, shared her outdoor dining best practices that operators can implement with minimal cost. La Bocca, located in Whistler, British Columbia, is an operation well-acclimated to cold-weather dining.
“If you come down the mountain in your ski gear, you can easily sit outside with the heaters on for over an hour,” Kniehl said.
Here are her hacks for improving outdoor dining during the colder months.
Don’t hide from the cold. If your staffers aren’t enthusiastic about the outdoors, your customers will follow suit. Embrace the idea of cold weather outdoor dining and lean into the chilly circumstances. Launch a social media giveaway contest for customers sitting outside. Create a “hat and glove club” for loyal customers with club discounts throughout the winter. Place grills outside near customer seating for a “tailgating” theme. Creativity has separated successful operations during the summer, and this will continue this winter.
Follow the sun. With daylight hours dwindling as the winter solstice approaches, knowing where the sun hits your outdoor seating from week to week is critical for customers. Make sure to adjust your seating to maximize sun exposure. The sun is your ally and a free source of heat.
Heat circulation. We all know heat rises, so use fans to help circulate valuable heat from patio heaters to chilly customers below. Having an awning, pergola or ceiling can provide a critical mounting location. If you’re enclosing your patio, ensure that heat is not escaping through seams or flooring.
Blankets. In non-COVID times, providing toasty blankets to guests was an easy way to ensure warmth and comfort while dining or waiting for a table. If you provide blankets, you need to communicate with your customers that they are properly washed and sanitized. Do this with signage or have wait staff communicate and offer them directly to customers.
Create a digital waiting experience. During the colder months customers will heavily rely on digital communication to make reservations so they’re not stuck waiting in the cold. Improve their waiting experience with digital “smells” like video menus, messages from the chef, or restaurant-themed trivia. Extend your Wi-Fi to the patio for point-of-sale capabilities and customer use while waiting.
Menu for the cold. Follow the example of ski resort operations like La Bocca, even if you don’t have a mountain backdrop. Add a coffee or walkup to-go station to your patio, build a hot drink and food menu, and get plenty of heat sources (torches, fireplaces, individual table heaters). Develop outdoor seating around the holiday, like a Christmas-market vibe for the holidays, by partnering with neighboring businesses.
Take the time to adapt for the winter months. Rely on the successes and learn from the mistakes of the summer and previous seasons to ensure customer satisfaction and enjoyment.