In early September, a cold spell gave Twin Cities restaurants an undeserved taste of what winter dining will be like once guests are no longer grateful for the open air of a patio. And temperatures had only dropped into the 60s and high 50s.
As if the pandemic hadn’t already squeezed every last ounce of creativity out of restaurateurs, finding a way to extend patio season into the fall came way too soon. In early September, Chicago’s mayor partnered with the Illinois Restaurant Association and others for the Winter Design Challenge, asking people to come up with detailed ways to make cold-weather dining enjoyable. Three winners split $15,000 in prize money.
In Minnesota, the home of the cold, restaurant owners are left to their own devices, which include adding heaters, offering blankets and resurrecting plastic igloos.
Remy Pettus, chef/owner of Bardo in NE Minneapolis, said he has space on his patio for four to five of the domes, and unfortunately the ones he’s previously used will need to be replaced. In the past, the domes added charm, this year, they presence is to add revenue. And while domes are one solution, he pointed out that there is a limit to how warm you can get the temperature inside one.
Serving on a patio in winter is also more challenging, as is scheduling, said Will Eadie, chief revenue officer for WorkJam, an HR software developer.
Some of the issues to consider, he said, may seem minor until there’s a problem. For instance, servers will need coats outside, but not inside; how do you reconfigure things like umbrellas; what to do with blankets that get wet; how do you keep the patio dry so that no one slips and falls? Another consideration is how the constant opening and closing of the outside door will affect the comfort of people dining inside.
If the temperature drops quickly, staffing will need to be more flexible, and managers should pivot to go to an "open-shift marketplace" approach, which he described as an on-demand staffing model where every morning the supervisor posts a message of how many people will be needed that day and people sign up. That’s a big change for staff used to having a set schedule, and guaranteed hours.
"We’re going to all be watching the weather a lot more than before," he said. (Eadie is based in Ohio, so he may not realize Minnesotans watch the weather closely all year round.)
Staff also will need to be trained on task management, he said, such as the safe way to roll out a propane heater, how and when to salt, protocols for putting away tables and all the myriad details of preparing the patio for guests and moving guests inside when the weather turns.
Ann Lovcik, foodservice energy efficiency consultant with CenterPoint Energy, said they offer rebates on the low-intensity infrared heaters such as the ones installed on the ceilings of patios. The style heaters that can be moved around, she said, are most likely propane, not natural gas.
Installing vinyl curtains is another way to keep the heat within the confines of the terrace, and a curtain also serves as a windbreak.
But all is not doom and gloom. Eadie said that he’s seen a lot of restaurants embracing winter patios and coming up with themes, such as a winter wonderland with hot drinks and warm desserts and cocktails in the snow.
And maybe there's even a snowman-building contest in the offering.