COVID-19 Restaurant Resources

How to Winterize Your Restaurant Patio for Outdoor Dining

By Katherine Pendrill

Group of friends raising their beers on the outside patio

Even in some of the chilliest cities, outdoor dining has always been big business for restaurants.

Whether it’s sidewalk seating or a sprawling beer garden, open-air dining gives restaurants an easy way to expand their available seating, provide customers with a unique dining experience, and maximize profits. In fact, some studies have found that adding a patio can help restaurants grow their revenue by more than 30%.

But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor dining has become more important than ever. When combined with proper safety precautions such as wearing masks, outdoor dining has been shown to carry a lower risk of spreading the coronavirus. For restaurants, this means a patio can provide a safer way for customers to dine-in, while also providing restaurants with a valuable source of revenue.

Of course, in most cities, outdoor dining is usually only reserved for the warm summer months. Patios are rarely equipped for snow and rain, and patio permits are often restricted to specific months of the year. For restaurants that have come to rely on patio revenue, this presents a major challenge.

So how do you ensure that your restaurant can continue offering outdoor dining beyond summer? By winterizing your patio.

In this article, we’ll explain how to winterize your outdoor dining areas so you can continue offering safe dine-in service, even as the temperature drops. We’ll cover:

  • The benefits of offering year-round outdoor dining
  • Key considerations to take into account
  • How to winterize your outdoor dining area

While winterizing your patio may not be an option for every restaurateur, it can be a good way to keep diners safe and keep revenue coming in as the pandemic wears on.

Group of friends enjoying a beer on a pub patio

3 Benefits of Winterizing Your Outdoor Dining Area

The most obvious benefit of an all-season patio is that it allows for more seating, and therefore, more revenue. But in the wake of COVID-19, there are many more benefits to outdoor dining.

1) Keep Customers and Staff Safe

Perhaps the biggest benefit of outdoor dining is that it carries a lower risk of spreading the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus is primarily spread from person to person through respiratory droplets that are released into the air when people talk, cough, or sneeze. When you’re outside, fresh air is constantly moving, which helps to disperse these droplets and reduce the risk of airborne or aerosol transmission. 

By continuing to offer outdoor dining into the fall and even winter months, you can provide a safer option for customers who want to enjoy dine-in service. Though the risk of spreading the virus is not zero, when combined with extra precautions such as vaccination checks, social distancing, wearing masks, and rigorous cleaning, outdoor dining is widely considered a safer option than indoor dining.

The option to continue working outside is also a benefit to your staff. Since your staff is constantly interacting with the public, allowing them to work outside where the risk of transmission is lower can help to reduce their own chances of getting sick. For staff who may still feel anxious on the job, this can help to make them feel more comfortable.

2) Ease Diners’ Anxieties

Related to the issue of keeping diners and staff safe, outdoor dining can also help to ease some of the anxieties about dining out – anxieties that have continued to linger even as states and cities have long since reopened. In fact, one study found that 43% of Americans still don’t feel comfortable dining indoors.

However, when faced with the option of indoor or outdoor dining, more people report feeling comfortable on a restaurant patio. This is even true in cities with notoriously harsh climates and bad winters. For instance, in Calgary, Alberta, one poll found that more than 50% of Calgarians said they would brave the cold for a heated patio.

By winterizing your patio, you can continue to give diners that choice to dine where they feel more comfortable doing so. Not to mention, keeping your patio open can signal to diners that you’re continuing to take the pandemic seriously and doing everything you can to make guests feel at ease about dining out.

3) Maximize Dine-In Revenue

Beyond the customer experience, there’s also the very real financial benefits that come with winterizing your outdoor space.

In places where COVID-19 transmission rates remain high, there are still some restrictions on indoor dining in place. In places where full capacity is not yet permitted, restaurateurs are unable to bring in the same revenue as they did pre-pandemic.

If indoor dining is still restricted in your city or state, having an outdoor dining area may be another way to capture dine-in revenue. Outdoor dining allows restaurants to add more seats to their venue, maximizing the number of tables that can be served at any given time. And maximizing dine-in revenue is crucial for many restaurants given the high costs associated with using third-party apps to offer takeout and delivery.

And while it’s true that creating a year-round patio does require an upfront investment, it is something that many restaurants will be able to benefit from long-term. Even after the threat of COVID-19 has disappeared, the ability to seat more customers year-round can help to bring in additional revenue beyond the summer patio season.

Group of friends enjoying a meal outside during winter

4 Key Considerations to Keep in Mind

While winterized patios have some major advantages (especially during a global pandemic), year-round outdoor dining isn’t an option for every restaurant. So before you start construction on an awning or investing in portable heaters, you’ll want to take a few things into consideration.

1) Climate

Perhaps the biggest consideration when winterizing your patio is climate. While operating a patio in snowy Montreal, Quebec is certainly possible, it comes with a lot more obstacles than creating an all-season outdoor dining space in Austin, Texas. So before you begin the winterization process, be realistic about the kind of weather you’re up against.

2) Cost

It goes without saying that winterizing your patio is an added cost. From roof coverings to heating units, there are a lot of costs associated with winter-proofing your outdoor dining area. And for restaurants still struggling with a loss of revenue due to COVID-19, this investment may not make financial sense.

3) Space

At the height of the pandemic, many cities allowed restaurants to expand their patio spaces onto sidewalks, into parking lots, and even city streets. Of course, this is space your restaurant probably doesn’t own or lease. Before thinking about winterizing your patio, you’ll have to consider how much outdoor space you actually have to work with, while still keeping social distancing in mind.

4) Local Rules and Regulations

As mentioned above, many cities loosened restrictions on outdoor dining to help restaurants stay afloat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of those programs also have an expiry date. Before constructing a year-round patio, it’s important to check your local laws and regulations to find out what your options are. In some cases, you might need to apply to add heaters to your outdoor dining area or obtain a whole new license to operate a winter patio.

An outdoor patio with standing heaters

How to Winterize Your Patio

After considering the benefits and taking all the variables into account, you might have decided that winterizing your patio is the best option for your restaurant. But now the question is, how do you do it?

Below, we’ll cover some of the key steps involved in getting your outdoor dining area winter-ready. Though every restaurant’s patio will look a little different, these guidelines should help you create a plan of action (before the snow arrives).

1. Make It Warm

First and foremost, any year-round patio needs to be warm enough for guests to comfortably enjoy it. Depending on your climate, you can explore different kinds of heating solutions, such as:

  • Portable propane heaters
  • Built-in heating equipment
  • Infrared heaters
  • Portable fire pits, fire bowls, and outdoor fireplaces

However, pumping heat onto your patio may not be enough to keep it cozy on cold days. In some cases, keeping things warm also involves protecting guests from the elements, like rain and snow. For this, you’ll need to invest in a temporary or permanent structure. Roof overhangs, awnings, and other horizontal covering are most effective if they’re facing south because they will provide shade in the hot summer and a little bit more sun in the winter.

To protect against strong winds, you might also consider seasonal or roll-down wall panels. Ripstop vinyl-coated polyester roll-down walls panels can be especially helpful in providing protection from rainstorms. When installing any side coverings, remember that you still need to keep outdoor air flowing in order to lower the risk of airborne or aerosol transmission of the coronavirus.

While keeping your guests warm in the middle of January might seem impossible, keep in mind that winter patios are common throughout Northern Europe and in North American ski towns, thanks to some clever design innovation. Now, other cities are looking to help restaurants do the same, with places like Chicago launching a Winter Design Challenge to find creative solutions for winter outdoor dining. And in cities like Montreal, restaurants have a long history of experimenting with different types of outdoor patios, like the winter yurts constructed at SAT Foodlab.

2. Make It Comfortable

Beyond making your outdoor patio warm in cooler weather, you also need to think about how to make it comfortable and enjoyable to spend time on. Part of this involves getting the right lighting. In most places, winter means less daylight, so proper lighting is not only important for creating the right atmosphere, but also for safety. When considering different lighting options, make sure you choose something that can withstand the elements and won’t create a safety hazard.

In addition to lighting, you also need to invest in proper furniture. Like your lighting, your patio furniture needs to be fit for your particular climate – whether that’s cool and mild, or cold and snowy. Of course, you don’t have to sacrifice comfort for durability. Choose furniture that feels warm to the touch like wood, instead of cooler materials like metal. You can also follow the lead of restaurants like Café Bicyclette in Edmonton, Alberta – a city known for its brutal winters – and invest in cushions and comfy lounge seating

Finally, don’t forget the decor and landscaping when thinking about restaurant patio ideas. Just like a summer patio, extra touches like potted plants or decorative elements can make guests feel more comfortable and cozy – even when the weather’s less than perfect. Consider providing your guests with blankets that can keep them warm and be laundered after each use. If that’s not feasible, a BYOB (bring your own blanket) policy could be an option.

Two women sitting on a cafe patio with blankets

3. Make It Safe

While there have always been safety concerns associated with dining outdoors, COVID-19 has meant that restaurateurs need to take even more precautions. First and foremost, that means accommodating social distancing by adjusting your patio’s floor plan to ensure guests can maintain at least six feet of distance from staff and other diners at all times. If you’re working with a smaller patio, you might consider putting up physical partitions that can provide some separation between tables.

Ensuring proper social distancing also means controlling the flow of staff and diners on your heated patio. Consider using signs and directional arrows to keep foot traffic moving in a single direction. You can also equip staff with a tableside ordering system like TouchBistro, so they can take orders directly at the table, and don’t need to run back and forth to the POS terminal. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, you need to ensure your outdoor dining area has proper airflow and ventilation. Remember, the circulation of outdoor air is key to reducing the risk of transmission, so you need to make sure that your heated patio still allows for this outdoor airflow. In Chicago, a Mississippi-themed restaurant called The Delta has managed to solve this issue with a canopy roof covering with vented windows at the top.

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4. Make It an Experience

Though safety is extremely important, you still want to make sure your customers have a good time when they visit your heated patio. One of the unfortunate impacts of COVID-19 has been sucking a lot of the fun that comes from restaurant patio dining and gathering with others. Creating a year-round outdoor dining space is a way to inject some of that fun back into the restaurant experience, while still protecting the health of staff and customers.

To make your winterized patio a destination, look for ways to offer customers a one-of-a-kind dining experience. This can start with something as simple as adjusting your menu to suit the season. Instead of lighter fare like salads, offer customers warm and hearty dishes that complement the cooler weather.

This can extend to your drinks menu as well, with options like mulled wine, hot chocolate, and warm apple cider. At Chicago’s Dovetail Brewery, brewery co-founder Hagen Dost is planning to promote its glühkriek (a warm, spiced cherry beer) as the temperature drops as a way to draw guests to the patio.

And this experience doesn’t have to end with your food. Amp up the ambiance of your heated patio with elements like music, unique lighting, and themed decor. These extra touches can help make your outdoor patio an inviting experience for customers – especially those who have been feeling cooped up during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the restaurant industry particularly hard, and with many operators still struggling to stay afloat, investing in an all-season patio might not be a viable option for everyone.

However, as many operators found this summer, outdoor dining can be a particularly valuable way to maximize dine-in revenue, while still protecting the health and safety of staff and customers. For the operators that can make it work, winterizing their patios may be the best way to continue bringing in that revenue as the pandemic wears on.

Photo of Katherine Pendrill
by Katherine Pendrill

Katherine is the Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, where she writes about trending topics in food and restaurants. The opposite of a picky eater, she’ll try (almost) anything at least once. Whether it’s chowing down on camel burgers in Morocco or snacking on octopus dumplings in Japan, she’s always up for new food experiences.

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