With no clear end of the pandemic in sight and federal aid running out, the question a lot of us have is, how long can we survive?
And while a lot of restaurants have been reopening over the past few months, taking advantage of outdoor seating or offering takeout, the cold weather is coming—and that’s going to make things trickier.
I recently spoke with my colleague Kevin Rathbun, a well-known chef in Atlanta, and he mentioned that relying on his city’s mild summer weather this year has been a lifeline for him during COVID. Patio seating, along with takeout and curbside, has really helped his restaurants to survive this summer. They’re at about 50 percent capacity inside the dining room and can seat nearly 100 people outside between his two restaurants, so being able to use patios has been a game changer.
Infectious disease experts tell us outdoor dining is safer and according to a recent Zagat “Future of Dining Study, “three-quarters of people polled said outdoor seating would make them more likely to visit.”
Yelp claims 60% of temporarily shuttered restaurants may never reopen. With the number of COVID cases in the US still among the highest in the world, it makes sense that restaurateurs are nervous. When temps dip into the 50s and below, people nervous about indoor dining may just stay home.
Here are five creative ways chefs and owners can prep for colder weather.
1. Expand services outside your brick and mortar
Invest in patio heaters and wind barriers to maintain outdoor seating. Chef Rathbun is watching every penny he spends and continuing takeout. He is also adding in-home dinner parties and offering online cooking classes via Zoom. It’s vital to start promoting and booking holiday parties, not the big corporate ones, but small business and family events.
Many restaurants are offering catering, meal kits and large prepared meals to-go—especially with the bigger holidays approaching this fall and winter. Side hustles include wine, liquor and grocery sales.
2. Involve your community
In Chicago, the city has launched a new contest called the Winter Design Challenge to solicit ideas to promote outdoor dining at restaurants and bars during the winter. Chicagoans are encouraged to propose innovative outdoor dining solutions that adhere to COVID health protocols. A panel of local restaurants and community members will select a winner in each of the three challenge categories: outdoor, standalone structures; indoor-adjacent spaces; and cultural shifts making winter dining more appealing. Winning ideas could snag $5,000.
Many restaurateurs created crowdsourcing pages, relying on the community to help keep staff employed and the doors open. Michal Arnette of Word of Mouth Restaurants in Atlanta was able to raise more than $25,000 on a GoFundMe page that went to his employees. Gift cards will also be big this year and highly suggested as holiday gifts.
3. Warm up the guests and the menu
Home Depot has seen a 79% increase in searches for patio heaters in the past five weeks compared to the same time last year. And Amazon says sales of outdoor heaters have jumped 70% from April to June. Our giant heaters keep guests warm, sometimes as soon as October at our restaurants, and customers come early hoping to land one of the coveted outdoor seats.
In San Francisco, Servino Ristorante decked out two patios with built-in heaters and will replace metal outdoor furniture with materials that feel warmer to the touch. They are using shrubbery to help block the wind and will offer blankets to guests. The menu will also transition to slow-cooked dishes and hot toddies.
Large grills and smokers put out a lot of heat. Chefs can do their grilling on the patio or even allow guests to “sizzle their own steak” to keep them toasty. Fire pits for heating and roasting marshmallows bring warmth and nostalgic experience in one.
4. Build it and they will come
Restaurants up north are investing in nanowalls and doors. Justin Anthony of True Story Brands in Atlanta added the doors to his 10 Degree South restaurant. They are open every night for service and customers love it. The 180-seat South African restaurant is now limited to 100 seats between the dining room and the patio, so heaters have been added in the ceiling of the patio, as well.
City Winery in Chicago offered the River Dome experience, dinner in a clear, temp-controlled structure with wifi, Bluetooth speakers and, this winter, heat.
5. Take advantage of technology
Social media can produce a lot of data and much of that information is about customers. Learn all you can from them like which days of the week they visit and what their favorite dishes are. Reusable menus may become a thing of the past as diners can place orders from digital menus via their smartphone or tablet. Contactless payment is offered by most banks and credit card companies and became increasingly popular when COVID hit.
Restaurants are now looking to apps to digitize back of house processes, like SkilletWorks, which was designed and developed by restaurateurs to link purchasing with accounting, saving them time and money. And Bizimply lets you manage multiple restaurant locations from your mobile device, handle shift scheduling, employee attendance, HR issues and payroll.
Front of the house apps include GPS-enabled curbside pickup. El Pollo Loco will offer one starting Sept. 28, so customers will be able to order using the company’s website or its rewards app, and get notifications to check in when they arrive at the restaurant.
Winter is coming, and at the end of the day, restaurateurs are doing what needs to be done to keep the doors open—even when it’s cold outside.