How to keep it comfortable for customers when dining outside

By Lauren Kramer

As the weather turns colder, managing outdoor dining becomes increasingly challenging for restaurateurs. How do you keep diners comfortable as the temperatures plummet? How do you make the experience enjoyable when pandemic safety protocols meet the harsh realities of winter weather? There are no easy answers, but here’s what some are doing to enhance their outdoor dining comfort.

Bundle Up: There’s nothing like a nice warm blanket on a cold day, particularly when you’re sitting outside and need that extra layer. Consider offering diners freshly laundered blankets to use while they’re dining. At Bastille Brasserie & Bar in Alexandria, Virginia, chef-owner Michelle Poteau offers diners new fleece blankets for $9 each. Bring your own blanket and your table gets a 10% discount off.

Crank up the Heat: Outdoor patio heaters are in high demand right now, with restaurateurs seeking  propane, infrared and electric options. At Bastille Brasserie the patio seats 26 with social distancing and though it already features two chimney fire pits, the installation of electric heaters will be vital to keep folks dining this winter. “It will cost between $4,000 and $6,000 to install electric heaters, and we’ll need railing heaters for some areas and something to block the wind,” Poteau said. This Thanksgiving she offered Thanksgiving-To-Go dinners, and plans to do the same for Christmas, to accommodate diners who want that little holiday cheer but aren’t comfortable visiting a restaurant due to the pandemic.


Keep Reinventing: For Chef John Schopp, CEC, CEPC, CCE, CCA, AAC, owner of Center Stage Catering, constant reinvention has been the only way to stay in business since the events that formed his mainstay evaporated in March 2020 when the novel coronavirus pandemic broke out, causing businesses to shut down. The caterer invested $12,000 in an outdoor dining space in Rocky Mount, Virginia, transforming a raw parking lot into a safe gathering space by using split rail fences, custom made, socially distanced picnic tables, and bales of hay for that Appalachian, outdoor, festive feeling. He used the lot for dining pop-up restaurants in the summer and fall, and when the temperatures dropped, shifted to a butcher shop pop-up, offering homemade cheese, sausages, cured and smoked bacon, hot beverages and ready-to-go food like pies, snack cakes and smoked, pepper-crusted prime rib.  

Shelters in Place: Tent company Alvantor is doing brisk business these days as restauranteurs seeking winter outdoor solutions opt for its bubble tent pop-ups. Able to be assembled and dismantled in seconds, the bubble tents come in three sizes and range in price from $469 to $789. ootBox, another company trying to provide temporary solutions, offers portable, 10-foot shipping containers that can be placed on any flat surface within 100 feet of a power outlet. ootBoxes rent for $1,000/month each, have heating, air conditioning and lighting options, and can accommodate up to six diners ideally using a high-top table or booth. “The thing diners want most right now is control over every environment,” said Allison Zofan, founder of ootBox. “If they know they will only be with the people they came to a restaurant with, it gives them that reassurance they need.” 

ootBoxes have heating, air conditioning and lighting options, and can accommodate up to six diners.

Outdoor Decor: If you’re still using metal outdoor furniture this winter, remember, it can be an uncomfortably cold surface for the derriere. Consider upgrading to furniture made from materials more warming to the body, and give a sense of permanence to your outdoor space by using décor to your advantage. Utilizing planters to separate tables from each other adds warmth and color, while lighting strung around your patio adds a festive glow with the bonus of ensuring your diners can see what they’re eating.