It is hard to believe that it has been almost two years of restaurants adjusting operations due to COVID-19. Yet, unfortunately, it looks as if we are to have another winter season of adjustments ahead with the Omnicron variant predicted to peak in the United States in January of 2022.
The resurgence of the virus will increase the demand for outdoor dining options. The good news is that many cities have loosened zoning regulations on patio dining, making it easier for operators who do not have existing patios to create spaces to accommodate diners. Sidewalks, parking lots, and even rooftops have become second dining rooms, each requiring special touches to intrigue customers and keep them coming back.
If you have not already taken advantage of outdoor dining, now is the time to get creative. Below are eight tips to help you create an alluring outdoor dining space to draw in a crowd during the long winter months.
Add warmth and ambience with fireplaces and heaters
There are options for every budget when it comes to outdoor heating. From portable space heaters, heating fans, overhead heaters to firepits and elaborate fireplaces, there are plenty of ways to create a warm and cozy outdoor experience. Many operators also offer comfy blankets for use for those who might want to snuggle up to stay warm.
Add a sense of privacy
Even though they may be dining outdoors, not all guests are ready to be close to strangers. Separating diners with partitions will create a safe space between tables while providing privacy for outdoor patrons. Depending on your outdoor space and budget, these partitions can be made with Plexiglass, tents, pergolas, and even potted shrubbery. Remember that your outdoor space is an extension of your brand and should reflect the ambience that those seated inside enjoy.
Streamline your operations
To ensure repeat visitors, it is vital that your staff is extending the same hospitality to outdoor patrons as they are to those dining indoors. However, going inside for everything can really add to a server’s workload. If you have been on the fence about investing in updated software and gadgets, now may be the perfect time to do just that. Upgrading to a handheld point-of-sale device will save your servers valuable time when taking guest orders. Or perhaps experimenting with using QR codes, which are a great option for customers to view the menu, order, and pay from their cell phone.
Create a winter menu
During the colder months, people tend to crave comfort food that will warm them from the inside out. This is especially true if you happen to be on the patio in February. Providing a specialty menu that includes steaming winter soups, stews, and chili is a great way to warm up chilly guests with delicious seasonal options that may not be included on your regular menu. Plus, soups are a great way to use leftover meats and vegetables that are close to expiration, reducing food waste (and the profit margins on these items can be huge).
Consider limiting dining times
If your outdoor space is popular and comfy, it’s possible to get in a group of “campers” that order very little yet spend hours nestled in your oversized blankets next to the fire. You may consider establishing a 90-minute dining policy in order to keep turning tables. To be sure that there are no hurt feelings, it is important to set this expectation early and often. Be sure that the policy is communicated when the table is booked, when the guests arrive, and clearly posted in the patio area. For those diners who want to linger, extend a table visit at the end of their allotted time to offer a free appetizer and an invitation to return during non-peak hours so that their next visit may be longer.
Put safety first
Even when the temperatures may be bearable for lunch and dinner service, often they sink below freezing during the night. The last thing you need is for a patron or employee to be injured. Be sure to have shovels, rock salt, and ice melt on hand in case your outdoor space freezes over. Anti-slip and anti-ice floor mats should also be considered for regions with extreme winter weather.
Offer specialty drinks
Hot chocolate, coffee, mulled wine, cider… There are so many warm alcoholic and non-alcoholic options available that you can please just about any palate. Many of these warm offerings can also be batched, making service quick and simple.
Go Fido friendly
An ASPCA survey shows that one in five households acquired a dog or cat during COVID-19. Of those households, 87 percent of these pet owners remain committed to caring for their cats and dogs. Pet owners who are concerned about their new dog experiencing separation anxiety when routines change are eager to find ways to incorporate these pets into their lifestyles. A dog-friendly patio may be just the reason your establishment is chosen over the competition.
Nobody knows what the future looks like for outdoor dining spaces once the pandemic ends. Chances are that this may be a trend created during a crisis that is here to stay well into the future. A strategic plan for attracting and retaining patio guests could provide the additional boost in sales you have been looking for.
If you’d like to further help your stores boost sales by optimizing your outdoor dining space, consider a comprehensive, restaurant-specific management solution. Restaurant365 is an all-in-one restaurant management system incorporating reporting tools, restaurant accounting software, restaurant operations software, inventory management software, payroll + HR software, and scheduling software into a cloud-based platform that’s fully integrated with your POS system, as well as to your food and beverage vendors, and bank.