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Rats And Bad Weather: The Cost Of Outdoor Dining Is Too High



Mar. 07, 2024
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Customers sit outside Cafe Luxembourg holding umbrellas while it rains on July 11, 2020 in New York ... [+] City.

Getty Images

It seems like an easy win in the time of Covid-19–if restaurants need to enact social distancing regulations and stay afloat, the idea of allowing outdoor dining, by opening up more sidewalks to tables, seems like a no-brainer.

The reality is a little more complicated–many restaurants cannot afford the infrastructure to seat people outdoors, curbside car access is often tied to the business model and everyone has to contend with rats and the weather.

Outdoor dining can’t replace lost revenue

Many restaurants have temporarily changed their business models to focus on take out, or to sell groceries or meal kits. In New York, before outdoor dining was allowed, restaurants were bringing in just 20 or 30% of usual revenues and Grub Street reported how almost 80% of them couldn’t pay June’s rent.

But outdoor dining cannot recoup this money and won’t replace it. By using outdoor space, restaurants might be running at 30% occupancy rates, placing larger gaps between tables than before.

Restaurants already operate on very small margins, serving people in a very short time window and serving hours can’t be extended unless people extend the hours in which they eat.

Eateries can’t always comply with disability legislation

Boston and San Francisco opened to outdoor dining on 11 June, but it has been difficult to restructure many small spaces into an outdoor place. As reported in Wired, in the U.S., owners are restricted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (which requires ramps and spaces to allow mobility aids to move freely).

Uber Eats and Glovo drivers pick up food orders outside a McDonald's restaurant on April 30, 2020 in ... [+] Lisbon, Portugal.

Corbis via Getty Images

Removing cars from the equation doesn’t always help

It can be difficult to create small areas of outdoor dining because of the physical infrastructure; even if you take away car parking spaces, you need to provide access, erect barriers and possibly redirect rainwater around sitting customers.

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What’s more, many restaurants rely on takeaway revenue via companies such as Uber Eats, which require vehicle access to the door. In communal areas, shared by lots of restaurants, it also becomes complicated about who does the clean up.

It’s hard to plan around the weather

For restaurants who have been allowed to set up outdoors and given licenses, a lot rides on the weather–there’s a big difference between the weather in London and the 300 sunny days a year in the south of France. New York had lower than average rainfall in June but recent weeks have brought hail, daily showers and a tropical storm.

As reported in Grub Street, it’s difficult to decide when and if to open with outdoor dining. Customers don’t just lose out; shifts get cancelled if it rains, leading to lower wages and a loss of tips for the staff.

Owners can’t afford to move outdoors

To use outdoor space, restaurants have to spend money on barriers, floor markings and crockery which can be used externally, i.e. not glass. Many smaller cafés cannot afford awnings or parasols to protect customers from the weather; at the moment, it’s expensive for many smaller cafés who are unsure if it’s an investment with long-term returns.

A rat sniffs a box with food in it on the platform at the Herald Square subway station in New York ... [+] City on July 4 2017.

Getty Images

Rats can be a problem

NBC New York reported on a growing problem with the increase in outdoor living; more and more rodents are circling the outdoor diners across Manhattan urging shop owners to appeal to the sanitation department to collect rubbish more frequently.

Staff protection is the hardest thing to solve

Whilst it can be relatively straightforward to seat and serve customers with several tweaks–tables can be separated, people can order and pay through apps, tables can be served by just one member of staff–the biggest problem is how to reduce touchpoints for staff.

Invariably, people who cook and serve the food need to come together at some point. Air filtration systems and kitchens which are more open with more fresh air, require more investment. No one is yet sure what role air conditioning plays in spreading the virus and how much ventilation is essential. There is the eternal problem of how to manage access to and cleaning of the toilets. And what to do if the clientele do not wear their masks.

The Washington Post reported on how many restaurants have business-interruption insurance to cover situations where they have to close but many do not include contagion–indeed, after SARS, some insurance providers added clauses to include bacteria and viruses to avoid such a payout, which they say would be unfeasible and lead to a ‘solvency event’. President Trump’s promise of tax relief will help larger businesses but many smaller U.S. restaurants are asking for a government bail out.

The U.K. government introduced its summer budget on July 8 to help the hospitality industry. It slashed value added tax from 20% to 5% and launched an ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ discount–customers who dine from Monday to Wednesdays in participating businesses will get 50% off their meals, up to a maximum discount of £10 ($12.5) per head, and the business gets repaid by the Treasury within 5 working days.

In mid-May, Olivier Bertrand, owner of over 850 restaurants and eating spaces across France (from high-end Michelin-starred restaurants to Burger King) asked for government help to save the industry, saying the country and its hospitality staff–some 1 million unemployed–could benefit from a VAT decrease and rent-waivers when closed.

Why Outdoor Seating is a Trend for Commercial Foodservice

Both operators and customers have driven the increasing demand for outdoor seating at restaurants and foodservice establishments. Both can benefit from the trend.

Safety – Throughout the 2020 pandemic, authorities told consumers that outdoor activities were safer. Weddings, concerts, funeral services, political rallies, exercise classes, and other social events were all moved outdoors to maintain health and safety. It was no different for restaurants. Operators leveraged patios, parking lots, rooftops, and lawns to offer customers a safer dining option. Many municipalities made special provisions for sidewalk dining to help operators remain viable. Even though restrictions have eased, it’s reasonable to assume that many safety-conscious consumers will still gravitate toward venues with outdoor seating.

Expanding Capacity – Also during the pandemic of 2020, social distancing requirements forced many operators to limit their dining room seating capacity by 50% or more. The earning potential of a dining room is always limited by the number of available seats, so restaurants and commercial foodservice operations desperately sought out new spaces to add seating capacity. In many instances, this meant outdoors. A 100-seat indoor dining room operating at 50% could conceivably maintain their total earning potential by adding 50 additional seats outdoors. And once indoor seating capacity returned to 100%, they had 50% more earning potential than before the pandemic.

Experience – More and more, customers aren’t just looking for a good meal. Modern consumers want a dining experience. It has been said that the best food you ever ate was likely served indoors. But your most memorable dining experience you ever had was likely outdoors. Al fresco dining has always had a popular appeal. Whether sitting at a café table on a busy city street or dining on a quiet balcony overlooking the mountains, outdoor dining provides relief from the enclosed spaces and four walls of home and office. Outdoor dining can be charming, relaxing, romantic, adventurous, exciting, or even celebratory. For most, it is at least a break from the norm, and for many, it is a great opportunity to share selfies with friends and family on any number of social media platforms.

Comfort & Technology – For many, outdoor dining has become a more acceptable option because outdoor seating has become much more pleasant and comfortable. No longer are customers relegated to stone benches, splinter-ridden wooden picnic tables, or rusty metal mesh tables. New manufacturing techniques provide contoured polymer and metal chairs, with or without cushions, that provide more comfort than traditional hard, flat seats and seat backs. New technology has resulted in a wider variety of weather resistant materials and finishes. New powder coatings perform better than paint and the vibrant colors and clean surfaces are more inviting and appealing.

Rats And Bad Weather: The Cost Of Outdoor Dining Is Too High

Outdoor Seating Trends

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