These days, al fresco dining is less a sign of good weather than it is a mark of safety. But as the industry heads into the colder months, restaurants have to reconcile demand for outdoor seating with stringent restrictions.
In Colorado, Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant had to adopt different responses at each of its five locations.
“We see a little bit of everything honestly, because we’re in five different municipalities. We have folks that are working really hard to accommodate what is clearly—we hope—a temporary sort of situation,” owner Pat McGaughran says.
Rio Grande has been in the process of creating its own al fresco solution; one unit features booth-style tables, propane-powered portable heating, and a shower curtain–like exterior. But it hasn’t been a smooth road. Late last year, local authorities had challenged McGaughran’s design, citing concerns about whether the roof could properly handle an 100-pound snow load.
“We were trying to understand their reasoning. At the same time, if there’s 3 feet of snow on this thing, it’s not going to be occupied,” McGaughran says. “To some degree, you try to use best judgment and hope that others do, too.”
Other areas in the state have been extremely proactive to support restaurants heading into the colder months. One example is the city of Lone Tree, Colorado, which used funds from the CARES Act to purchase 50 yurt-style igloos for restaurants to utilize.
Jeff Holwell, Lone Tree director of economic development and public affairs, says the challenge for operators is finding a place to put them. The igloos take up a 12-foot base, meaning restaurants can usually claim only one or two igloos.
“It really only accommodates two tables, but it’s better than nothing,” Holwell says.
As for Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant’s other locations throughout the state, McGaughran says he’s cautiously hopeful that the restaurant can find outdoor options for its branches in the colder months.
“There’s nothing easy about what we’re doing right now, and there’s nothing certain either. But that sort of describes [last year], doesn’t it?” McGaughran says. “We’re up for the challenge.”
While some cities like Lone Tree accommodate for unique al fresco structures, that may not always be the case. David Tracz, principal and cofounder of design firm //3877, also finds that al fresco dining solutions have to be planned according to a restaurant’s location and layout.
“Every city has different requirements about what you can have for outdoor structures. For example, we’ve seen igloo-type pods that help make it a novelty experience while still staying safe, but not every city is able to do that,” Tracz says.
Propane heaters are one such tool that exemplify the lack of a standard approach to al fresco. While New York City doesn’t allow for propane heaters, Washington D.C., restaurants can have them in specific circumstances.
Nevertheless, both cities have at least made an effort to give restaurants more space. Tracz reports that D.C. has done so by adjusting sidewalk ends and thus giving more protection for restaurants that want to stay as “streeteries.”
“When sidewalk cafes were the only option, the eating area was restricted to the restaurant facade, but now municipalities are being more flexible to expand into other retail spaces for sidewalks that aren’t being used,” Tracz says. “There are some good things that we’ll start to see come from this.”
A key element to making outdoor dining a viable choice in the cold weather is the visual assurance of a restaurant’s precautions. D.C.’s Hyatt Place, one of //3877’s clients, has been able to do this by incorporating a 40-foot green wall that serves as an outdoor ventilation system, along with an indoor-outdoor, folding partition that connects the two patios to the interior dining space.
Tracz says future restaurant designs will have less flexibility and more confined seating—but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He foresees these design changes making the dining experience feel more intimate and exclusive.
Also based in Washington D.C., Knightsbridge Restaurant Group founder Ashok Bajaj prepared his near- dozen concepts by ordering heaters and tents. Still, he emphasizes that executing a successful outdoor dining program amid COVID-19 goes beyond obtaining the proper supplies. Late last year, he invested in accents like Moroccan lamps and Christmas lights to keep the style of al fresco dining consistent with the atmosphere of his restaurants.
“You just can’t put tables and chairs out and say, ‘Here, eat,’” Bajaj says. “People want to get out, and people also want to dine in, which is soothing to them. They are taking a chance to come out during these times, and they want to sit down.”
According to an October survey by finance service company Rewards Network, two-thirds of restaurant owners who planned to adjust their outdoor spaces for winter said diners would be very willing or somewhat willing to dine on the patio in the colder months. This statistic was especially optimistic, as only 8 percent of respondents in the same survey responded that guests would be very unwilling.
But at some point, many restaurants will reach a point where it’ll be too cold to go al fresco. Bajaj says his strategy will then adapt with whatever the conditions bring.
“Wherever we can continue to generate some revenue, whether it’s takeout, whether it’s outdoor, or whatever it is,” Bajaj says. “Keeping our staff safe, keeping guests safe—I think there’s no strategic thinking other than that.”