Can outdoor seating save your restaurant during COVID-19?

Restaurants have been some of the hardest-hit businesses during the COVID-19 crisis (Chinese restaurants in particular, but that’s another story). 

Most local restaurants operate on very small margins and even as more states reopen restaurants as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, the restrictions against capacity and the new requirements for social distancing and restaurant sanitization mean that profits for small local restaurants are necessarily cut in half or worse, even if they fill every available indoor space at the new capacity limits.

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Some local restaurants have created innovative ways around the COVID-19 shutdowns where allowed, selling meal kits, “bonds” for future dining at a discount, and other stopgap measures.

Most restaurants that have survived so far have had to adapt quickly to online ordering and delivery even if they had never planned to before the crisis, and though some have been able to make 40%-70% of their previous revenue in this way, that’s still a far cry from truly profitable in most cases.

Pilot programs in several states allow additional outdoor spaces to be used for restaurant seating

So what are restaurant owners to do in this COVID Catch-22? An increasing number of states are authorizing relaxation of outdoor dining restrictions for restaurants, who are now able to utilize the public spaces around their locations as expanded seating, while still adhering to social distancing and maximum capacity regulations.

This new trend, popularized in Tampa but now authorized in some form in parts of California, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Atlanta, New Jersey, and Massachusetts (and likely many more places by the time you read this), allows restaurants to set up sidewalks, walkways, and even parking lots as expanded customer seating and dining areas.

In most cases these rules are issued by Governors’ executive order, and only on a trial basis to see how restaurants and customers respond. But if initial feedback is positive it may continue for some time.

The new rules will be slightly different from state to state and even city to city, but in general they allow restaurants to expand their service offerings while adhering to social distancing rules (which typically require keeping tables six feet apart and may limit the number of diners in each party).

By adding their parking lots, sidewalks, gardens, and/or other outdoor space to their capacity, restaurants can immediately seat more guests and hopefully earn enough money to keep them alive until the crisis dies down.

Check with your local health department and government to see if they have adopted a similar policy for restaurants in your area.

Outdoor seating may calm some diners’ fears about COVID-19

Since sitting in an enclosed restaurant space with a bunch of other people who may or may not be as careful as I am about social distancing is a key anxiety for many people right now, this outdoor seating trend may be just the ticket for both struggling restaurateurs and nervous diners.

How can you maximize your customers’ satisfaction with outdoor dining?

Obviously there are additional concerns when moving diners outdoors. The most obvious is weather, which can be as fickle as a new Cordon Bleu graduate’s appetizer menu.

Installing sturdy umbrellas over your outdoor tables can mitigate some worry, or better yet a large marquis-type tent (just don’t fully enclose it… or you aren’t solving the problem that moving your diners outside was meant to solve). 

Outdoor propane heaters can help on cool spring or autumn evenings, and insect zappers or mosquito candles can help keep hungry bugs away from hungry diners.

Publish frequent updates on all your social media channels, website, and online business listings to keep people informed about what you’re doing and any rules they need to follow. (A rule against idling vehicles in your parking lot may help avert annoying noise and fumes, for example.)

You may also need to remind people that the restrictions against smoking or vaping that apply indoors will likely still apply in your outdoor seating areas.

Obviously be very visible in your sanitization of your restaurant and all contact surfaces, and consider adopting or increasing your use of contactless payment options to help customers feel more at ease (and to save time performing the necessary sanitization steps between each payment).

Other practical matters include the type of seating and tables you make available. Some types of chairs and tables may be perfectly fine on smooth wood indoor surfaces but may be unstable, noisy, fragile, or otherwise annoying to guests when used outside on concrete, gravel, or pavement. Similarly, a glass or a plate that may survive a fall onto a wood or carpeted surface indoors will certainly have a harder time hitting the parking lot.

You may also need to try dedicating a portion of your servers to the outdoor guests and enforce their entering and exiting the restaurant via a dedicated door to prevent tracking more dirt/debris/oil or other contaminants in from the parking lot or lawn area.

While serving your restaurant’s clientele outdoors may seem like it’s not worth the hassle, it may be the difference between staying in business and having to close, so please consider it carefully if it’s allowed in your area.

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