Patio Season Helped Establishments During Pandemic, But Winter Is Coming

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DES MOINES, Iowa — After being shut down for months, then dealing with seating limits and uneasy customers, restaurants are taking a huge hit during the pandemic. However, they have one saving grace — patios.

The outdoor seating is giving establishments more space and open-air options, but patio season is soon coming to an end and that’s forcing restaurants to get creative once again.

Rita’s Cantina in Des Moines opened up during the pandemic and heavily relied on its patio this summer.

“We had a heck of a summer. People wanted to come here and eat,” Jeff Bruning, owner of Full Court Press Inc, and Rita’s Cantina said. “It was a great way to spread people out.”

Two-thirds of its dining is outdoors, not to mention the seats they added to their parking lot. Now in the fall season, it’s looking for ways to extend the life of its outdoor dining as long as it can.

“We have ordered some heaters at some places. For Rita’s we have heaters on the way,” Bruning said. “I do know three months ago I made a comment about looking into patio heaters and they were $150 on Amazon, then five weeks later I looked again and they were $300. I’m sure they are hard to come by. Propane isn’t free and you have to keep filling those guys. We will do what we can.”

Bruning said patios not only helped with additional square footage to spread people out but also brought in more customers who felt more safe dining outside. That’s why he wants to let people enjoy the outdoors as much as possible.

“Normally it’s like, ‘ok, it’s going to be 50 degrees today, going to be that way for the rest of this week. Let’s just shut the patio down, even if people come in and want to sit, we just aren’t going to offer it.’ Well this year, any chance to be outside, we are going to take that opportunity.”

Restaurant Solutions Inc, a national restaurant consulting and accounting firm, said they have some restaurants across the country that are going to great lengths to make their chilly patio an experience for customers.

“I’ve seen people get branded blankets, they make customers feel cozy. They’ve created hot toddies and various types of warm drinks, almost to make it like you’re at a mountain lodge,” Matt Vannini with Restaurant Solutions Inc said. “I even had a client that got very creative and bought some propane fire pits. They were able to create a nice little couch like environment out there.”

Vannini said that kind of investment isn’t worth it for many establishments and that’s why he suggests doing other things like investing even more into virtual events, delivery, and take out to make up for the money lost from the patio.

“To try to extend the [patio] season is great, but there’s money involved in that and it’s not something that we are going to always do. I mean, it’s Iowa. It could snow tomorrow and then 82 degrees next week,” Bruning said.

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