Restaurants Need An Extended Patio Season

Restaurants Need An Extended Patio Season

We have a real problem on our hands. It’s creeping up on us and not enough people realize what’s coming. Yes, there is a lot of ominous warnings that “Winter Is Coming” and with it, a likely new wave of COVID outbreaks this fall and winter. That’s the weather driven public health crisis creeping up.

The weather driven economic crisis slowly approaching is the reality that our beloved New England autumnal weather is also likely to mark the end of outdoor dining season. And with it the lifeline that thousands of restaurants across Boston have been holding on to in order survive just one more shift, one more week, one more month since May.

Bottom line: If/when restaurants are no longer able to operate outdoor seating set-ups, lots of restaurants will no longer be able to operate at all.

That reasoning comes from some simple math. Restaurants are already under state-mandated 50% occupancy restriction. That constraint on indoor seating is simply not a viable business model for most restaurant operators. But most operators haven’t actually felt safe and comfortable serving guests indoors anyways, so it was sort of a moot point. That’s why the explosion of newly created outdoor dining space in cities across the country has been a critical boost for operators. It’s allowed them to get back to their business in a way that makes them, their staff, and their guests feel safe. For some of our beloved small neighborhood joints, the outdoor seating they’ve been able to set up actually ends up being more seats than their normal indoor space allows. Bringing patrons back to the restaurant to sit down for a meal also means they are likely buying high-margin alcoholic beverages they might have forgone with a take-out order. That’s a big deal for a restaurant’s bottom line.

But what do these operators do when the summer ends and diners don’t want to sit out in the cold to order a glass of wine? Worse yet, what happens if diners are willing to brave the chill but the City imposes a deadline on patio season and forces restaurants to put the string lights and umbrellas in storage?

Both of those are real possibilities. The first is hard to control for, but the second is totally in our hands.

For starters, the restaurant community, Main Streets groups, landlords, and municipalities need to jump on this immediately to get ahead of this issue before the first leaf turns color. Start talking to each other about creative solutions for making outdoor dining more palatable later in the season. A few brief questions and ideas to consider:

  • Can outdoor dining spaces be upgrades with wind screens to buffer the late season chill?
  • Do operators want to install space heaters?
  • If so, can landlords help them with the upfront capital costs of purchasing them and offer free space to store them and their gas canisters?
  • City governments, can you publish crystal clear guidelines for how to get approval from the Fire Department for space heaters?
  • Can landlords help install some form of tent enclosures around patio seating areas to extend the season a bit?

That’s a start. But city government needs to step up here even more. Licensing departments bent over backwards to loosen burdensome regulations to make outdoor seating easier and more widespread this spring. Lots of credit goes to them for that. They should now take the lead on helping restaurants extend the season if operators so choose. For one, cities should immediately drop any thoughts of putting an end date on current outdoor dining permits. Restaurant owners should have the chance to make a run at an extended patio season if they think customers will show up and it will help them stay in business – that’s their risk to take if they want to. Some arbitrary (rumored…) date of October 31, for instance, isn’t based on anything related to what’s best for small business owners or our neighborhoods business districts. If snow removal is the concern, seriously think if that has ever been a serious issue in Boston before January.

We also need a mentality shift about sitting outdoor dining in less than perfect summer weather. I’ll save my full “just look to Europe or Canada for how to do winter right’ rant for another time, but seriously, there are countless examples of cities that experience similar or more severe winter weather and still find ways to make good use of outdoor space for recreation and dining throughout it all.

Bundle up! Wear a scarf and a hat! It’s New England: it’s going to get cold, so let’s re-think what it means to experience that and the upside will be more time in the relative safety of the outdoors amidst a pandemic while also helping our neighborhood small businesses survive a bit longer.

Newly found seating space on sidewalks, on streets, in adjacent alleys, in rear loading dock space cleaned up to become al fresco oasis have all added new vitality to our streets and neighborhoods. They’ve also helped numerous restaurants from closing for good these past months. If we don’t act quick to adapt outdoor dining for the fall and winter, it will be a self-inflicted wound for small businesses throughout the region.

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