Outdoor dining: an opportunity to innovate or a yet-another huge expense for restaurants? The whole restaurant industry is pondering this question as we head into fall and start prepping for winter.
I wonder if restaurants might not be better off forgoing the whole debate and instead keeping their focus fixed on their off-premises strategies.
In many cities, restaurants have relied heavily on outdoor seating at a time when dining rooms remain shuttered or can legally only accommodate a fraction of their normal capacity. Some businesses have gotten very creative in their efforts. And that creativity will need to carry them through the next several months of cold, snow, and wintery mixes, when normally no customer would even consider dining al fresco. There’s no telling when dining rooms will be able to operate in full capacity again, and with reports of rising COVID-19 cases, there’s also no way to predict if we’ll have to shut them down completely again.
In response to the uncertainty, some cities are getting proactive about winterizing the outdoor dining experience. The idea is to reinvent the outdoor seating format to make it more comfortable for restaurants-goers to eat outside, despite the weather. This week, Washington D.C.’s Office of Nightlife and Culture announced a $4 million grant program to help restaurants cover the cost of tents, domes, heaters, furnishings and other operational expenses that specifically relate to outdoor dining. Applicants must submit a budget of their planned expenses before they can receive funds. All locally owned businesses may apply, with a few caveats. (Read the full requirements here.)
The grant program follows recent news of Chicago’s Winter Design Challenge, which was accepting ideas for outdoor dining formats and will announce the winners in a few days. Submissions so far have included tents, solar-powered pergolas, heat-reflecting walls, heated tables, and igloos, among other gems.
All of those ideas sound compelling (including the igloo). None are likely to be cheap, which gets to the real issue of winterizing outdoor dining. It’s less a question of whether these solutions would work as it is of how much more money a restaurant would have to pay in order to implement them? That’s to say nothing of the fact that restaurants must first obtain sidewalk cafe permits to even be allowed to serve outside, which is yet-another expense piled on the heaters, furniture, and other creations meant to protect diners from the weather.
I need hardly say that restaurants can ill afford these options at a time when many are struggling to simply keep the lights on. Off-premises formats are not ideal, but they are going to be a better long-term bet for most businesses. For one thing, the numbers around digital ordering, which powers off-premises orders, say as much: 50 percent of consumers are using restaurant mobile apps “more often or much more often” than they were before the pandemic, according to one recent survey. Another found that its restaurant customers “have seen a 782.7% increase in Online Order sales volume growth.”
At the same time, 60 percent of restaurant operators say that their operational costs are higher now than pre-pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association, and that’s without heated tents or igloos.
As much as I hate to say it, forgoing the question of outdoor dining altogether and using any remaining funds and resources for improving to-go formats seems like the wiser decision. At least for now. Someone may come along with a truly disruptive idea that could reinvent outdoor dining without breaking the bank, but that’s a wish more than a reality right now.
A Fine-Dining Drive-Thru Extravaganza
Speaking of creative concepts. Reservations platform Resy this week unveiled plans for “The Resy Drive-Thru,” a fine-dining drive-thru event that takes place October 15 and 16 at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. Resy is doing the event in partnership with Amex, which acquired the platform last year.
Ten noted Los Angeles restaurants will host pop-ups outside the Palladium. Guests will be able to drive through this “whimsical labyrinth,” which effectively amounts to a 10-course tasting dinner on wheels. Chefs include Nancy Silverton, Curtis Stone, Nyesha Arrington, Konbi, Night + Market, and Jon & Vinny’s, among others.
From a Resy press release:
“Each of the chefs will create a never-before-seen dish from their individual kitchens, to be served in sequence to the guests, who will remain in cars for the duration of the experience.”
I thought the whole thing faintly ridiculous (and pretentious) at first, until I remembered how badly the pandemic has hit the full-service and fine-dining sectors. No, a fine-dining drive-thru won’t solve all the restaurant industry’s current woes. Yes, the event is partially a way for Resy to promote its business. But it’s also another example of the industry being forced to think of new and unusual ways to connect with customers. And right now, we need as many of those as we can get.
Following the event, Resy and American Express will make a donation to chef Jose Andres’ nonprofit World Central Kitchen.
Restaurant Tech ‘Round the Web
Virtual restaurant company Triver Eats and Urge Gastropub & Common House San Marcos opened their first Taco Box virtual franchise this week in San Diego. The concept offers family-style taco bars available takeout or delivery.
Donatos vs. Dominos: Pizza chain Donatos told NRN this week that it operates “a secret innovation hub” near its Ohio HQ, where it tests new foodservice innovations it hopes will eventually benefit the entire food industry. So Domino’s is clearly not the only pizza company-turned tech innovator in town.
Read this: an extensive breakdown of the many ways in which third-party delivery services are decimating the restaurant industry.