Outdoor dining + winter = the final straw for restaurants?

The change in season brings new challenges to restaurants coping with COVID-19 restrictions, as the looming winter weather poses questions on how to maintain outdoor dining – or safely return to indoor dining. 


With COVID-19 outbreaks often occurring  in busy enclosed spaces, restaurants  were tasked with cutting the number of indoor diners order to reopen – while in some cities, like Los Angeles and New York, indoor dining was forbidden altogether.

Even in the best of times, restaurants operate on slim profit margins – often cramming in as many tables as possible to increase revenue – so generating enough revenue to survive with indoor dining capacity restricted was nigh on impossible. To compensate, restaurants turned outdoors, with many cities facilitating this by closing streets to traffic and allowing sidewalks and parking spaces to be repurposed for dining.

In addition to giving restaurants a chance to turn a profit, outdoor dining gave consumers confidence, as it is thought to reduce the potential to spread the virus. However, this is largely dependent on one critical factor: the weather. During the summer months, diners were happy to dine alfresco and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. However as winter approaches in cities where indoor dining rooms remain closed, will those same diners still be happy to dine outdoors – through wind, rain, and snow?

Chicago – known for its freezing winters – has thrown the question to the public by launching a design competition on how to stimulate and encourage safe outdoor dining and entertainment during the colder months. Ideas submitted so far included repurposing phone booths and city buses and building ice bars and Swiss-style fondue chalets.

We came up with our own ideas to help restaurants maintain the outdoor dining experience during the colder months:

1. Embrace the cold with a winter dining experience

Ever dined in a private igloo or snow dome?  The concept isn’t new – diners have been enjoying dinner in private snow globes on London’s Southbank for years, while dining igloos were on offer at several pubs during the southern hemisphere’s winter. The experience isn’t limited to the structure, with complete packages often including blankets, Nordic menus, and schnapps to facilitate that warm and fuzzy feeling.

One thing to keep in mind is that the more enclosed an outdoor space is, the more likely it is be considered an indoor space. Currently for seating to be considered outdoor, a tent must have three of four sides open – so keep the ventilation coming!

2. Keep warm

Perhaps the most obvious solution is also the simplest: keep customers warm.

Erecting semi-permanent structures such as a greenhouse adds usable covered square footage, while retractable awnings can be added on without the expense of a more permanent addition. In spaces with good ventilation (and staff to maintain them), portable fire pits or outdoor places are becoming more popular, and can be complemented with menu options like hot chocolate and s’mores. Have a supply of blankets, scarves, and winter coats on hand too for those who need them.

Don’t forget your staff, who’ll likely be running between the kitchen and the outdoor dining space. Ensure their pathways are also protected, both from the cold and from patrons.

3. Maximize indoor space

If you’re in a city or state that allows indoor dining, first focus on strong ventilation and adequate air flow. The safest indoor space is one that constantly has lots of outside air replacing the stale air inside. Typically in commercial premises this is achieved through the use of a HVAC system, although opening windows and doors is an inexpensive alternative (if not impractical in colder months).
Next, make the most of the space you have:
  • If your venue has both bar and eating facilities, move the bar outdoors to maximize the number of diners that can be seated in the warmth.
  • Have diners who arrive early for their reservation wait outdoors until their table becomes available, and have delivery drivers pick-up from the outside space. Waiting areas can be then repurposed as dining areas, allowing an extra table or two to be implemented.
  • Remove the cash desk. Use mobile payment systems like Square and have diners pay at the table, rather than taking up space with a cash register
  • Where regulations allow, consider taking over nearby shops or offices to increase square footage. If a neighbouring shop closes at 4pm, ask if you can utilise the space in the evening for an extra table or two.
  • Look for creative ways to implement social distancing and provide a jovial atmosphere, such as propping up mannequins or cardboard cut-outs on unused tables. We’ve even seen a Chinese restaurant who placed toy pandas on alternating stools!
  • Some customers are happy to dine outside, whilst some prefer to dine inside. When taking reservations, ask if there is a preference

4. Keep up takeaway and delivery 

Outdoor dining may still be novel and doable in fall but not in the midst of winter, so increased reliance on takeaway, delivery, and curbside pickups will likely remain. Go one step further though and help the customer recreate the whole dining experience at home by provide personalized menu cards, a Spotify playlist to set the scene, and even a candle for added ambience.


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