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As Restaurants Prepare for Winter Outdoor Dining, Convincing Customers Remains a Challenge

If you build a winterized outdoor patio, they still might not come

A red squirrel eats an acorn surrounded by falling snow. Giedriius/Shutterstock
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food and Travel Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

As more states are allowing the hospitality business to reopen in varying capacities, restaurants, particularly those in cooler climates, are hastily prepping for a winter al fresco. Heat lamps are selling out and restaurants are attempting to build structures like insulated bubbles, all while encouraging customers to layer up under parkas and blankets. But all these preparations may be for nought if people aren’t convinced that they want to eat outside. To fill seats, restaurants must at least figure out this basic-but-important challenge in appealing to diners: keeping the food warm.

Lester Gouvia, owner of Norma G’s in Detroit, recently made this point in the online publication Crain’s Detroit, saying, “I have to be concerned that if that space isn’t heated well enough, that food is going to go cold very quickly, and that’s not the experience I want for our customer, and I don’t think a customer wants to pay for that experience.” As restaurants continue to struggle, the reality of cold food has become a pressing concern.

The unpredictability of the weather has always been an issue for restaurants that offer outdoor dining, regardless of the season. Many a night have I run under an awning and watched rain soak my dinner as I wait for a freak storm to pass. But in previous years, that was always a minor personal calculation to make for the enjoyment of a summer breeze — if it wasn’t nice out, I could always sit inside. Now, the stakes are higher. Restaurants and workers are trying to make up for time and money lost at the beginning of the pandemic, as rents and mortgages must be met, and with social-distancing protocols, there are only so many tables they can fill. According to the Washington Post, “Restaurateurs are expected to lose $240 million this year.” No one can afford to give up a table, even when it’s surrounded by feet of snow.

In areas where indoor dining is available, people are reluctant to take advantage of the cover and space. “People just don’t want to sit inside that much,” said Mindy Friedler, co-owner of Fiya, a restaurant with a twenty table patio, in Chicago. The wariness comes with good reason; according to a recent study, adults who contracted COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant in the preceding weeks. The study did not differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining, though the CDC says indoor dining makes for a higher risk of COVID-19 spread.

Restaurants have typically used space heaters to extend the life of their outdoor patios. The heaters, depending on density of the space, can keep both customers and food warm in slightly chilly weather. Friedler said one issue with keeping up the quality of dining outdoors is that, with more demand, heaters are becoming harder to find. And while ensuring customers are comfortable and are being served warm food is a priority, she’s also concerned about staff. “I can’t expect my staff to bundle up and run out there,” she said. She’s working on ways to make sure people are comfortable outside for as long as possible, and has thought about changing how service is done so food is delivered quickly. But if you’re worried about your food getting cold? “You just got to eat fast.”

Juanma Calderon, co-owner of Celeste in Somerville, Massachusetts, recognizes that hastily scarfing down your meal can greatly detract from the joy and purpose of dining out. He brought up an article in Boston Magazine in which writer Scott Kearnan implored, “If you would have braved the freezing cold for a Patriots game, you should do it to save local restaurants, too.” Calderon, recognizing it as a clever comparison, still argues that “[at a football game] I’m drinking beers and eating hot dogs. It’s not the same if you go out for a romantic or business dinner.” At Celeste, they’ve put out candles and heaters on the outdoor patio, but as it gets colder, it’s likely diners are just going to have to move inside, where the restaurant has expanded into an upstairs space for better distancing. That, and Celeste is bracing for more takeout and delivery orders.

As someone who avoids football games for precisely the reasons Calderon outlines (along with...every other reason), the idea of eating outside as the temperatures dip is, forgive me, chilling. Obviously, diners have gladly adapted to many of the conditions — whether it’s spaced-out tables or trying to pull up their masks any time a server comes over — in order to support their favorite restaurants In These Times. And in the summer, if you let yourself forget about the pandemic for a second, it might even be relaxing to eat out. But once it’s cold out, there’s really no way to pretend that this is anything close to replicating what has historically made dining out enjoyable. Outdoor heaters have dwindling returns with every gust of icy wind. There’s no such thing as a parka for your steak. And a candle on the table might actually make things worse, by suggesting the presence of warmth without giving any. Dining out risks becoming something to be endured, bundled up and hunched over, rather than enjoyed.

The struggle to make outdoor dining bearable is more proof of the limits of the half-measures taken by our government to protect restaurants throughout the pandemic. Paycheck Protection Program loans were paltry, and another stimulus bill isn’t coming any time soon. There has been no cancellation of rent or mortgages. So restaurants have to rely on the support of the individual, who now must brave increasingly uncomfortable, unenjoyable, and risky conditions in order to eat out. And diners will do it, because everyone wants their favorite restaurants to survive. Get ready to eat fast. Or maybe stick to takeout with a big tip.