Outdoor dining: a pandemic lifeline for restaurants

Jan 15, 2022

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When the world started to lock down in March 2020, the only thing that was certain was the uncertainty of how COVID-19 would impact everything from daily life to work and travel.

Businesses like restaurants had to adapt quickly to changing COVID-19 regulations to operate safely while trying to remain sustainable.

And dining is a big part of the travel experience for many people.

Related: Dining out, taking out and ordering in: These are the best cards for foodies

From simple tents to elaborate custom-built outdoor enclosures, restaurants got creative and added a unique layer to the experience.

Now, nearly two years later, outdoor dining is top of mind with the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, and it’s a way to keep restaurants operating.

Outdoor dining evolution

Early into the pandemic, restaurants pivoted to takeout food only and had to figure out a way to address how to serve customers when indoor dining was prohibited.

Restaurants turned to converting spaces around their locations. Some set up tents and covered areas, while others carved out spaces that stretched into the street and built plastic igloos and greenhouse structures to create open-air dining rooms.

These innovative dining experiences also provided a crucial lifeline to restaurants.

“In the first two months of the pandemic, we were down 85 percent in sales. And in the restaurant business, if you’re down 15 percent, you are borderline closing already,” said Raymond Mangune, managing partner at Gerry’s Grill in Artesia, California.

Mangune said when they established an outdoor dining area right outside the Filipino restaurant’s Southern California location, they were able to cut down on unmanned overhead.

Alfresco dining at Gerry’s Grill in Artesia, California, provides diners with a unique experience. (Photo by Leezel Tanglao/The Points Guy)

“We’ve actually been profitable because of the size of our outdoor area,” he said.

However, the reaction to expanded outdoor dining hasn’t been all positive due to accessibility issues and building code concerns facing restaurant owners. But for most restaurateurs, outdoor dining during the pandemic has also influenced the way diners and cities think about these open-air spaces.

“Because people have gotten used to seeing these structures in place, it’s really changed many urban centers. They’re walkable. It’s a lot more European style alfresco dining,” said Rodney Salinas, national director for food solutions at Hungry, a national food-tech platform. “As Americans, we love our cars. And the idea of taking away a parking space so that you can accommodate tables for people to eat was almost unheard of until the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, everybody all of a sudden had much more open minds to try to figure out how we can still live our lives, but at the same time stay safe.”

The outdoor space at Gerry’s Grill offers can accommodate more people than indoors, which seats about 180. In addition, it provided a way to offer live entertainment.

“It’ll never be enough to do just takeout,” said Mangune. Any business that has a dining room definitely needs to set up an outdoor space to survive, he added.

In mid-December, Mangune shifted back to indoor dining following a city decision to discontinue the temporary outdoor dining areas.

The pandemic has taught restaurant owners some lessons on how to survive beyond just offering takeout service. “I would say always be ready to evolve and always look at different angles of how you’re going to keep your business alive,” he said.

Featured photo by Leezel Tanglao/The Points Guy.

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