As we enter the fall season, consistently chillier temperatures are becoming the norm for many states in the U.S. This means that restaurant owners will have to get extra creative when it comes to keeping their outdoor dining areas open and thriving all year round. In fact, the city of Chicago launched a challenge asking its residents to submit ideas for how they would encourage outdoor dining and entertainment during colder weather, and the winning ideas did not disappoint! With indoor dining restrictions constantly shifting due to COVID-19, the importance of having a sustainable and airtight outdoor dining solution has definitely been highlighted. And, for many restaurants outdoor dining may be the only source of on-premise dining revenue. We’ll break down how you can master the key components of a successful cooler weather outdoor dining experience — heat sources, furniture, seasonal menu items, and entertainment — without breaking the bank.
The number one concern of patrons that choose to dine outdoors in cooler weather is staying warm. As a business owner, this should also be top of your list since the more comfortable and content guests are, the longer they will stay, and the more money they will spend. There are a variety of cost-conscious heating options that can work well on a restaurant patio.
Tents: Tents or transparent wind-blocking vinyl curtains can prevent harsh rain and snow from infringing upon your guests’ dining experience. This will also allow your outdoor dining space to be completely useable during harsher weather conditions (rain, wind, and snow) without obstructing views. And, it gives you the ability to remove the tents/sheeting for warmer weather use as well.
Heaters: Electric, gas, or propane heat lamps and infrared heaters can be a viable solution that restaurant owners can rent or buy. These commercial heaters can be situated around tables to ensure guests remain warm and comfortable throughout their entire meal. Of course, it’s necessary to check local/state laws as they pertain to off-premise electrical and heat sources in your area to see if this type of solution is allowed.
Fireplaces: Outdoor fireplaces can serve double duty by acting as a heat source, but also a key differentiator and selling point in a restaurant. Portable firepits, fire bowls, and fireplaces create the perfect warm and cozy ambiance that customers are craving during cooler weather months. Plus, they are typically inexpensive to run for long periods of time.
Blankets: A great way to promote your brand and keep your guests comfortable is to sell branded blankets, hats, and scarves. This way, people can rest assured that the items are clean and new (still in the packaging) and these pieces act as great traveling “billboards” for your restaurant — getting your logo and name out into the world for other people to see.
Furniture and purposeful accent pieces are what make any design exude the desired aesthetic and feeling. During these chillier months aim to make your restaurant’s patio a relaxing and inviting oasis for customers.
Furniture: Nothing prompts people to kick back, relax, and stay awhile like oversized lounge-style furniture. Try incorporating some large patio sectionals, chairs, and couches that have overstuffed cushions and soft pillows.
Lighting: Soft, subtle lighting can further add to the comfy and cozy vibes of your outdoor dining space. Affordable solar-powered fairy/twinkle lights, flameless (battery powered) flickering candles, and electric lanterns can add the perfect amount of mood lighting to any table or space.
Décor: Small, subtle touches can go a long way in curating a welcoming environment. It’s a good idea to add seasonal design elements like pumpkins, branches, evergreen trees, pine garland, and any other home décor items that can add a bit of texture and warmth. This can help guests embrace and enjoy the cooler weather and seasonal shifts.
Unexpected elements: Featuring something unique and unexpected in your outdoor dining area is a great way to catch a passerby’s eye. For example, some restaurants in cooler climates are testing outdoor pop-up igloos that are cleaned and sanitized after each use. Get creative and think outside the box for inexpensive ways to transform your outdoor dining space with savvy structures.
Shift the menu
Cooler weather will have people longing for hot drinks, fall-inspired flavor profiles, and warm comfort food. Consider shifting your typical menu items slightly to spur increased food/drink orders during outdoor dining this fall and winter. Take stock of what ingredients you already have on hand and get creative with how you can tweak them to fulfill seasonal expectations and tastes.
Hot drinks: Offering hot and comforting drinks that contrast the cooler weather can further add to a positive outdoor dining experience. Hot apple ciders, mulled wine, hot toddy cocktails, and warm espresso and coffee creations can get customers in the mood to bundle up and dine outside in colder weather. You can even explore the option of serving these hot libations in insulated branded thermoses to ensure they stay hot for the duration of your guests’ stay.
Seasonal flavors: Add a seasonal twist to some of your current menu items by incorporating flavors people associate with fall such as allspice, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Warm and comforting foods like three-bean chili, butternut squash bisque, apple cider doughnuts, and grilled cheese with heirloom tomato sandwiches are sure to leave your outdoor dining patrons asking for seconds.
Promotions: To encourage even more outdoor dining food and drink purchases you can test different specials and happy hour times. Play around with featuring various on-promo menu items and happy hour days/times to see what works best for your outdoor dining setup. Also, if you have firepits, offering a complimentary smores kit with any entrée purchase is a great method for potentially increasing sales, while allowing customers to associate your restaurant with a distinctive experience.
Amp up entertainment
The final piece of the puzzle to a budget friendly and successful alfresco dining experience is the entertainment. Since the weather will be a bit cooler, sitting around outside chatting may not cut it, so it’s time to get inventive when it comes to entertaining your guests.
Bluetooth speakers: If you’re able to implement individual tents or igloo structures, having a Bluetooth speaker available in each is a nice added touch. This allows guests to choose and play their own music from their phones without you having to stress about an outdoor dining music solution.
Games: Investing in jumbo-sized games like Jenga and Connect Four can provide entertainment for guests all year round. You can also offer playing cards, checkers, and any other nostalgic board games to encourage people to stay awhile — being sure to thoroughly disinfect the games after each use.
Holiday movies: Everyone has that one movie they love watching during the holidays. If feasible, consider setting up a large projector outdoors to play popular holiday movies. You can add a few special snacks and drinks like buttered popcorn, candy, slushies, and nachos to give your guests the real “drive-in movie theater” experience. Remember to check copyright laws and act accordingly before advertising and showing movies on premises.
Embrace the cooler weather
The overall key to curating an outdoor dining experience that won’t push you over budget is to find ways to resourcefully embrace and showcase all the positive aspects of cooler weather that people already enjoy. A cozy and inviting environment, paired with warm comfort food and hot seasonal drinks, along with killer entertainment will have your guests focused on the great time they’re having rather than the slightly chillier temps. Repurpose and reuse ingredients and other resources that you already have in house when possible to further cut down on costs. COVID-19 has undoubtedly forced restaurant owners to be hyper creative and focused on developing safe, sustainable, and profitable dining solutions for their guests. As a business owner, aim to glean key insights and learnings from these challenging times that you can implement in the years to come, long after coronavirus.
To discover more restaurant marketing strategies and tactics that can help your business during COVID-19, take a look at our free e-tool, “Coronavirus era: 13 restaurant marketing tips.”