Outdoor Dining in Cold Weather: 8 Ideas for the Winter

Winter is almost here, and in Wisconsin and Indiana, we all know that means frigid temperatures.

For restaurant owners who are continuing to adjust to COVID-19 restrictions, the weather will present a brand-new challenge: setting up comfortable outdoor dining in cold weather. Restaurants have already been innovative, offering to-go options, and getting creative with food service. Now it’s time to rise to the occasion and find ways of providing outdoor dining to your guests.

Even if you’ve taken every precaution to limit visitors and set up distance-friendly indoor dining, COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations continue to change. Restaurant owners have been doing their best to roll with the punches and adapt. As winter approaches, we have to consider ways to keep customers warm and satisfied when they visit.

In many cases, restaurant-goers may feel more comfortable dining outdoors when possible. In our region, temperatures can reach record lows in January and February. On those ultra-frigid days, even the best outdoor dining plan might not work out. Most other days, though, hearty Midwesterners will bundle up and eat outdoors if you provide them with a warm, comfortable space.

So how do you make the most of outdoor dining in cold weather? Here are 8 tips to help restaurant owners keep their patio patrons eating happily on cold days.

1. Shelter Your Patio Dining Areas

If you have a patio space, an awning or pop-up tent can allow you to shelter your patrons from whatever the weather brings. It’s important to use caution and follow fire code guidelines if you plan to heat covered areas. There are restrictions on the type of heaters you can use on a covered or enclosed patio.

Covering or partially covering your outdoor dining area is one way to provide shelter to your guests. You could also look for a sturdy umbrella and creative coverings to offer some protection. Cozy up the dining space with soft colors, candles on the tables, and comfortable seating to encourage a sense of warmth despite the distanced dining.

The good news is restaurants that have created makeshift patios on Milwaukee sidewalks can continue to serve customers outside through March 15, 2021. Other cities in the Midwest are likely to follow this guidance, but check with your area’s restrictions to make sure.

2. Consider Fire Pits

If your patio isn’t covered, a fire pit may be another option for encouraging diners to enjoy their meals outside. Gas firepits are odorless and relatively easy to install. You could even consider enclosed tabletop fire features on your patio.

A fire feature is a delightful way to warm up outdoor dining. It creates an atmosphere and ambiance. With the clean option of gas and propane, you don’t have to worry your patrons will go home smelling like a campfire. Even fine dining establishments can find tasteful fire feature options for their outdoor dining area.

3. Divide Up Dining Areas

Another option for adding outdoor dining in cold weather is to break up your seating in unique ways. CDC guidelines require six feet of distance between restaurant-goers, and many restaurants are opting to install partitions and plexiglass dividers to keep tables safely isolated.

For outdoor dining, you could consider small booths and even clear dome-type structures (as featured at Café Benelux and other restaurants) that make for a fun, different take on private dining. While these structures require an investment, many restaurants were already starting to use them for wintertime outdoor spaces, even before the pandemic.

One word of caution—if you use dome structures or greenhouse-type enclosures for dining, check your local heating guidelines. Many areas won’t allow restaurants to use propane under any enclosure or covered patio.

4. Use Space & Patio Heaters

Patio and space heaters started selling out in August. If you haven’t purchased outdoor heaters for your facility yet, now is the time! They will only become harder to find, lower quality, and more expensive as the demand goes on.

As mentioned above, it’s crucial that you check with your local ordinances on the type of heater you can safely use outside. Some cities only allow electric heaters or have restrictions on the number of propane-fueled heaters you can use in a dining area. A three-season room or screened porch may have even more regulations, so follow all the guidelines.

As a restaurant owner, you don’t want patrons to be cold, but you also don’t want to get shut down for a fire code violation! Play it safe by finding appropriate heating options for your neck of the woods.

5. Plan for Snow Removal Now

No matter your outdoor seating plan, make sure you factor in snowfall. Typically, in the Midwest, we don’t see heavy snowfall until December or January, but it’s always best to prepare. Enlist the help of professional snow removal services, buy a snowblower, stock up on ice melt or rock salt for walkways, and make sure you have a plan in place now to keep your dining area dry.

Sending servers out with snow shovels before a busy night can result in disaster. Snow removal isn’t something you want to address at the last minute. Instead, put assignments and guidance in place now for your staff. That way, when we start to get heavy snowfall, you won’t be caught off-guard.

6. Keep Hot Food Hot

The main challenge of outdoor dining is keeping hot food hot. When temperatures are cool, food will get cold quickly and become less appetizing. When you factor in the challenge of outdoor dining in cold weather, with masks, and lackluster, lukewarm food, you can see why people would feel turned off at the prospect of eating out.

The solution is to focus your efforts on small plates, skillet dishes (like fajitas, for example), and take extra steps like warming plates before sending them out to dine. Keep food as hot as possible and keep enough servers at the ready to ensure your dishes don’t “die” in the window. Patrons will likely crave warm, comforting dishes out of the oven and off the skillet. Give them what they want by serving food that’s piping hot and can help warm people from the inside. Try offering things like hearty soups and stews, or comforting baked casseroles. Or even add some heat to your dishes using spicy peppers in place of bell peppers.

7. Add a Bevy of Hot Beverages

Another great way to keep your diners warm and satisfied when dining outside is to offer several hot beverages on your menu. You don’t have to stick to just tea and coffee, either. There are warm cocktails, spiked hot chocolate or cider, and many other wintery adult options that will give patrons extra warmth.

Make hot beverages special and promote them to your outdoor guests. You could even offer hot tea to welcome them as they wait (an inexpensive touch that chilly patrons will appreciate).

While it’s essential to keep diners moving through their meal experience quickly to reduce the possibility of illness, recognize that many restaurant-goers ARE seeking a positive experience. They want to return to the sense of comfort and normalcy that foodservice provides. Take it to the next level with a welcoming, comforting cup of warmth.

8. Prioritize Safety for Outdoor Dining in Cold Weather

While we all want to maximize the positive dining experience—especially right now—it’s also essential to prioritize safety. During Coronavirus, it means masking up and following the CDC and your local health department’s recommendations. Servers who are interfacing with customers are especially vulnerable and should always be encouraged to wear a mask.

If you’re providing an outdoor dining area, you should still offer to-go options for patrons who would feel more comfortable with take out. Make sure your online ordering system is ready for the winter months, especially if outdoor dining options wane with icy weather.

Keep your servers and restaurant patrons safe by ensuring plenty of distance between tables and clear walkways. Keep signs posted about mask requirements, especially if patrons venture in to use your restrooms. Use extra cleaning protocol, offer hand sanitizer, and minimize the amount of contact you need to have with restaurant-goers.

Coronavirus won’t last forever, but a well-thought-out outdoor dining option may boost your restaurant for years to come. After we get through this challenge and face warmer weather, you will have a way to expand your restaurant offerings and welcome guests to a great outdoor space.

Reliable Water Services is Here for You

Hot water is critical to health, sanitation, and safety in general, but it’s especially vital to the industries we serve—and the majority of those industries are considered essential businesses. As our customers remain operational during these unprecedented times, so does Reliable Water Services.

Making sure our customers have hot water has always been our main priority, and now more than ever, we are here for you. We will continue to provide 24/7 water heater services to our customers, ensuring you have the hot water your business relies on. Our office team is practicing social distancing by working remotely or staying 6 feet apart while in the office. Meanwhile, our service technicians and installing contractors are following extra safety guidelines to ensure they can service your building safely without putting themselves or your staff members at risk.

Our team at RWS has always viewed the relationship with each of our customers as a partnership. Through this partnership, we will work together and get through these unique and challenging times. As always, should you need service contact us 24/7 at 1-800-356-1444. Stay safe, and be well!


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