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Transform Your Outdoor Dining Space During the Colder Months

Making the most out of your outdoor seating has never been more important for your bar’s profitability. From developing seasonal pop-up concepts and creative serves to choosing the best heat source to keep your guests warm, here are ways to transform your outdoor dining area into a space that can be enjoyed all winter long

The Vitality of Outdoor Seating

Outdoor dining went from being a nice-to-have aspect of one’s business, to essential as bar and restaurant capacity restrictions made profitability in the industry a near-impossible feat. In fact, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2020 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, 62% of fine dining and 56% of casual dining operators have dedicated more resources to expanding outdoor dining since March 2020, an outlet that provided a crucial sales lift during the summer months in particular.

As guests return to their local watering holes, the “new normal” begins to take hold with diners and imbibers quickly finding their way back onto bar stools and at tables, it’s time to make the most out of your outdoor seating or to hop on the bandwagon if you’re late to the punch. According to tech company Morning Consult’s July 2021 survey, Americans continue to prefer outdoor dining over indoor dining, with 77% of U.S. adults saying they currently feel safe sitting down for a meal outside, compared to 69% who said so about indoor dining. That’s a gap of 8 percentage points, roughly the same difference reported through June, and a gap that very well might linger on throughout the colder months.

Making the Most of Your Outdoor Seating

In the colder months of 2020, we saw the potential of what outdoor spaces can bring to a business: both from a revenue standpoint, but also how it can provide guests with a new way to interact with your bar or restaurant’s brand. This fall and winter, bars and restaurants will take their learnings from last year to amplify the potential of their outdoor spaces. Here are a few thought-starters for how to best use your outdoor space this fall and winter:

- Use your outdoor space to create a seasonal pop-up that’s a fresh take on your restaurant or bar’s concept. Instead of just having your outdoor seating serving as additional tables, consider developing your own themed pop-up that lures guests to come experience a new part of your brand. This can be something playful and cheeky (e.g., North Pole themed, or Après Ski), or a test concept for a bar you wish to open one day and want to use this pop-up to gather learnings about what works and what doesn’t. Either way, it’s an excellent way to utilize the space and gives guests a new reason to come and drink at your bar or restaurant.

- Partner with some of your favorite bars and have them do rotating takeovers throughout the holiday season. Do you have bar industry friends from other cities who’d love to bring their bar concepts to your space? In the same vein as the pop-up concepts, this idea would give your bar the opportunity to collaborate with some of your favorite bar teams and have them bring a bit of their style to your space. Whether they come in and take over the entire bar and build out the outdoor space, or just focus on the outdoor drinking experience, this is a great way to build industry relationships and get guests excited about other bars that you and your team find impressive. At the end of the day, a rising tide lifts all boats.

- Design your outdoor space to be an extension of the bar indoors. If your team doesn’t have the bandwidth to build out a pop-up concept, there’s nothing wrong with creating an outdoor space that embraces the holiday season while keeping your brand’s identity. Are you a tropical bar? Bring that same level of escapism outdoors with inflatable palm trees, sand, shells, nautical touches, and other elements that give guests the same enjoyment outside as they do in your bar. Consider warming touches such as custom blankets, BYOBlanket, and creative seating installations (i.e., cozy couches instead of stools or chairs), as well as heating options and service details (i.e., tableside boozy hot chocolate service, mugs with hot drinks that keep guests’ hands warm, etc.).

Bringing the Heat

The first thing to consider before developing your outdoor dining and drinking spaces is how you’re going to heat them. Is your space designed to accommodate electric heaters which need to be plugged in? Or do you need to set up gas heaters? Which heat types are the safest given your outdoor space? How much will it cost the business? (Note: Be sure to check with your city’s and building’s guidelines and regulations for compliant heating options.)

There are many considerations to be had when selecting heating options, and many are dependent on the size of your space and its design, but, most importantly, you’ll want to make sure that you properly invest in your outdoor heating source as skimping here will only be to your business’s detriment. Here are a few of the most popular heating types and their pros and cons, but always be sure to do your own research as well when looking at specific brands:

- Gas (propane) heaters - Gas heaters are typically fueled by propane, whether one-pound canisters or 20-pound tanks — the latter being slightly heavier and bulkier, but they’re still portable, nonetheless. Gas heaters come in all shapes and sizes; from tabletop gas fireplaces and small tank top heaters with outputs of anywhere from 25,000–45,000 BTUs, to large outdoor heaters such as popular 48,000 BTU patio heaters, there really is a heater for every space and design. The downside of gas heaters is that they aren’t as environmentally friendly as electric heaters, nor are they always able to focus heat where you’d like it to be (while the ground and guests will assuredly be warm, some heat also radiates in the air above which can be viewed as wasteful). Large gas heaters are also a bit bulkier and difficult to move around, so that’s something to consider as well. That said, they’re still a very popular option among most bars and restaurants.

- Electric heaters – These heaters can also come in many shapes and sizes, including wall-mounted (uncommon for gas heaters), on a stand, as a fireplace, or as a parasol. A key feature of electric heaters is the ability to turn them on and off when required as it saves a fair sum of money when no one is seated outdoors. Now, most electric heaters available come with an automated sensor that turns on when triggered. Not only are electric patio heaters extremely effective in terms of heating, but they also use 85% less energy than gas patio heaters (as briefly mentioned in the paragraph above). Electric heaters are also smell and toxin-free which is something to consider as gas heaters can occasionally give off an unwanted aroma. Research is vital with this heat source, though, as inefficient products can cost your business a bit of money if not monitored carefully. Be sure to do your homework!

- Solid fuel heaters – These include fire pits, log burners, and other heaters that burn pellets, wood, charcoal, and so on for heat. From an ambiance perspective, this type of heating source can create an almost camp-like fire experience. However, they tend to produce a lot of smoke which has a distinct smell and can be disruptive for guests who might struggle with asthma, etc. It’s the least popular option of the three heating sources, but it’s one that has its place in the right setting.

Designing Your Cold Weather Cocktail Menu

As is the case with any menu, balance is everything. Cold weather cocktails typically include an array of hot drinks, spirit-forward tipples, warming flavors (allspice, cinnamon, caramel, etc.), and aged spirits that appear in refreshing formats (whiskey highballs and sours, jungle birds, rum old fashioneds, and so on).

For cutting edge bars that fully commit themselves to seasonality in the fall and winter, you might even find pickles, ferments, preserves, and other alternative acids (read: verjus, vinegars, shrubs, acid solutions, acidified cordials, etc.) and ingredients that showcase out-of-season ingredients in a sustainable and seasonal way. Of course, these culinary-focused ingredients are often featured in addition to the typical toddies, hot chocolates, Irish coffees, and other beloved cold-weather classics, but many bars are exploring new ways to innovate and excite their guests.

Depending on your bar or restaurant’s concept (whether you’re a classic cocktail bar, are inspired by a specific place or culture, or just have a unique approach to service and hospitality), or if you decide to move forward with a pop-up concept for the season, your menu will be expressive of what you’re all about. The following are a couple of tips on how to build an exciting food and beverage program around the weather conditions:

- Feature daily or weekly rotating drink specials. If you live in a region where weather conditions vary greatly, sometimes it’s best to resort to a specials menu for hyper-seasonal cocktail offerings. Play it safe on your seasonal menu with sours, spirit-forward cocktails, and highballs, and use the specials menu to feature hot drinks, prep-heavy serves with ferments (lacto-fermented plum sour), one-off fat-washes (a duck fat-washed whiskey sour served around Thanksgiving), and other serves that may have ingredient limitations or are weather dependent.

- Get creative with food and drink pairings and deals. The world is truly your oyster here, and there are an infinite number of ways to get creative with your food and drink pairings and offerings. Here are a few thought-starters:

Try for yourself!

Highlands Tea

1.5 oz. Johnnie Walker Black Label

.25 oz. honey syrup

.5 oz. amaro

3 oz. hot black tea

Garnish with lemon (peel or wedge), cinnamon stick & grated nutmeg

Method: Build all ingredients in a warm tea cup, and garnish to serve. Alternative seasonal option: Swap the honey syrup for an Allspice-Infused Oolong Tea Syrup – recipe below!

Allspice-Infused Oolong Tea Syrup:

.25oz oolong loose leaf tea

12 oz. boiling water

2g allspice (crushed)

350g sugar

Method: In a saucepan, add the tea with the boiling water and allow to brew for 8 to 10 minutes to make a concentrated tea. Fine strain the tea leaves from the tea, then add the tea to the saucepan with the sugar and allspice. Turn on the heat and bring the mixture to a light simmer. Stir until all the sugar has dissolved, then remove from heat and rest to let the allspice infuse further for 20 minutes. Then fine strain and bottle for up to 2-3 weeks.

Duck Fat Old Fashioned

1.25 oz. duck fat-washed Bulleit Bourbon*

2 dashes aromatic bitters

1 bar spoon truffle honey syrup (2:1)

Garnish with expressed orange peel

Method: Build ingredients in a double rocks glass, then add one large cube. Stir in the glass until chilled and diluted, then garnish with an expressed orange peel.

*Duck Fat-Washed Bulleit Bourbon:

25 oz. Bulleit Bourbon

1.5 oz. rendered duck fat

Method: Combine the bourbon and rendered duck fat in a vacuum bag or heavy-duty resealable bag. Let infuse at room temperature for 8 hours, then freeze overnight. In the morning, strain the bourbon through a chinois or cheesecloth to remove the solidified fat and funnel into a glass bottle before storing in the fridge. (For food safety purposes, use within two weeks.)