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According to a National Restaurant Association survey 72 percent of full-service operators said they offer outdoor seating in a space such as a patio, deck, or sidewalk, up from 61 percent in April.

Restaurants Turn to Outdoor Dining, but 'Dark Chill of Winter' Awaits

Only 30 percent believe they can use outdoor dining for the whole winter. 

Thousands of restaurants could close without the financial support to extend outdoor dining, the National Restaurant Association warned Tuesday in a letter sent to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“Despite a few weeks of optimism earlier this summer, the outlook for the restaurant industry remains dire,” Mike Whatley, the Association's vice president for state affairs and grassroots advocacy, said in the letter.

In a survey of 4,000 operators from early September, the Association found the Delta variant slowed indoor dining at 78 percent of restaurants, and at at the same time, 61 percent of operators experienced an increase in demand for outdoor seating. In fact, outdoor dining has grown to a mix of 20 percent or more at 68 percent of full-service restaurants.

Overall, 72 percent of full-service operators said they offer outdoor seating in a space such as a patio, deck, or sidewalk, up from 61 percent in April. The number mirrors where the casual-dining segment was last year at this time, when 74 percent of operators offered outdoor seating. 

But changing weather conditions mean outdoor dining might no longer be as viable of a solution for customers concerned about Delta’s spread. According to the Association’s research, 61 percent of full-service restaurants can only use their outdoor space through October, and only 30 percent of full-service restaurants plan to utilize outdoor seating throughout the entire winter season.

“Restaurants currently rely on outdoor dining to stay open, but the dark chill of winter is coming,” Whatley said. “For operators depending on this revenue, every additional day they can extend their outdoor service matters. Last year, despite supply chain issues, many restaurants were able to invest in equipment to expand and winterize their outdoor dining areas. But many restaurants weren’t able to make those investments.”

National Restaurant Association
National Restaurant Association
National Restaurant Association

Whatley noted that many restaurants are headed toward another difficult winter without proper financial aid. In the letter, he emphasized that two-third of applicants for the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund did not receive any financial assistance.

Even though there's $43.6 billion left to be funded, Congress has not replenished the program, leaving 177,000 restaurants without crucial monetary help. During the summer, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund Replenishment Act was introduced to add $60 billion in funding. The ENTRÉE Act, rolled out a month later, aims to add $60 billion, as well. However, neither piece of legislation has garnered significant momentum. 

The National Restaurant Association is asking local leaders to help restaurants in offering outdoor dining for as long as possible this winter. The organization suggests possible solutions like extending expanded outdoor dining allowances, continuing to streamline permitting processes, promoting outdoor dining efforts by operators, and giving funding for outdoor dining infrastructure.

“Expanded outdoor dining cannot replace robust consumer demand for indoor dining or Congress taking action to replenish the RRF, yet it is critically needed to help the industry sustain the winter,” Whatley said.