As restaurants and bars across the country struggle to find ways to stay open and turn a profit following the COVID-19 outbreak, many have turned to outdoor dining. In some cases, this was the only option, given safety restrictions prohibiting or limiting indoor dining.
But even as regulations ease on inside service and the weather gets cooler, plenty of operators still plan to offer outdoor dining. Americans have discovered the joys of eating al fresco as Europeans do, for one, but also many consumers are not yet ready to return to inside dining—especially with fears of a second wave of the coronavirus.
If you are considering offering or continuing to offer outdoor dining, here are a few tips for success.
Have a strong foundation.
For some businesses, the shift to outdoor dining may lead to an expansion of existing areas; for others it may mean creating an entirely new outside space. Either way, you must carefully consider the safety issues and determine how you can best mitigate risk for customers and employees.
If the ground beneath your area is not level, you may need to build a platform. If you’re expanding into the street, clearly mark off the space with reflective tape so it is visible to traffic and bikes.
You can also use planters and other sturdy dividers to distinguish the area while enhancing the ambience. As you design the space, keep in mind the flow of traffic and make it easy for your staff to service tables.
Any outdoor space will naturally get dirty, so have a plan for keeping the area clean and free of pests. Above all, keep safety precautions top of mind; space out tables, insert barriers between tables where possible and mark out specific areas for eating and drinking.
Expand, expand, expand.
If your business already has an outdoor space, think about ways to grow that area. If your neighbors’ sidewalks are empty, consider taking over this space to expand operations—however, make sure to do so legally!
For example, some restaurants in New York City have even been able to use available space across the street to seat additional guests. Many streets have also been closed to traffic at certain times, creating even more dining space—something you might want to consider if it’s a possibility.
Plan for inclement weather.
Restaurants have always had great challenges when it comes to heat, rain, wind, snow and cold temperatures. To protect diners from the elements, tent your area with clear sheets with vents that can be rolled down while allowing for ventilation. Avoid umbrellas, as they can be potentially dangerous in wind and heavy rain.
With autumn looming, check if you’re able to run gas to your outdoor space to fuel heaters and consider electric heaters as a back-up option. Keep an eye on the forecast daily and adjust service as necessary.
Bear in mind that customers have come out for a dining experience, so if it’s cut short due to weather, you may need to have a backup plan ready. This might include comping part of a meal, packaging the rest to take home, offering a rainout special such as a free drink or dessert to take home, and so on.
Help employees navigate these changes.
Don’t forget that your employees are dealing with these changes and have their own safety fears. Listen to their concerns and address them as best you can.
Ensure that all employees have access to sanitizer and that they know your policies on wearing masks and gloves. For servers who are mainly outside, try implementing a rotation that allows for some employees to spend time inside the restaurant to help keep them cool (or warm if it’s cold outside).
Be flexible with uniforms and allow employees to wear lighter, breathable clothing when it’s warm out, and lightweight jackets or vests as temperatures decrease. Also, be sure to work with your employees to create solutions to new problems that come hand-in-hand with outdoor dining, such as how you will maintain a dish’s temperature in the outdoor heat or cold.
Manage guest expectations.
As mentioned previously, above all, guests still want to have an experience when dining out, even if it’s on the sidewalk. You should provide them with information that helps manage expectations during this uncertain time.
For instance, let guests know in advance if you are implementing a dining schedule or limit on seating time, so that it won’t come as a surprise if they need to give up their table. Post information about any new changes to your website and social media accounts. Do everything you can so that guests know you are keeping their safety top of mind, while offering the best experience possible.
Rick Camac is dean of Restaurant and Hospitality Management at the Institute of Culinary Education.