In the pandemic version of restaurants’ quest to put butts in seats, derrieres are the easy part. It’s the seats that’re proving the challenge.
Between government-set service limits and social distancing mandates, operators are struggling to provide enough seating to make on-premise business worth their while again. Even in a jurisdiction like Indiana, where capacity caps have been lifted, the requirement to keep restaurant tables six feet apart means only so many seats can fit indoors.
“What’s going to drive [sales] in the short term, more same-restaurant sales, is additional capacity,” Gene Lee, CEO of Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants, explained to investors. “As long as the six-foot rule is in place, you still are not going to really be able to max out your dining rooms.”
Frustrated, operators are scrambling for ways to boost capacity, indoors and out, to accommodate all the customers who want to dine out again. That challenge, many report, has been more daunting than pulling consumers off their couches in the first place.
The no-brainer has been installing physical barriers between tables, a way around the six-foot distancing requirement. Darden erected partitions between the booths of 500 restaurants within its portfolio, which also includes LongHorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille. It plans to continue rolling out the dividers in the months ahead. “That gives us six to seven extra tables per restaurant in the jurisdictions that allow us to do that,” Lee said.
A small fabricator reported fielding a cold call from Texas Roadhouse for 20,000 partitions. The demand for impermeable barriers has been so great that some operators have reported a shortage of plexiglass, a reality Red Robin is working around by installing glass versions.
Tents have been the other doh! method of providing additional seats, since accommodations erected outdoors don’t count toward the dining room caps. But the onset of fall has many rethinking how they can prolong use of that option. In New York City, where dining service was restored at 25% of pre-pandemic capacities just this past week, officials have added topspin by allowing restaurants to provide outdoor service through the winter.
But those efforts are just table stakes, so to speak. We’ve scoured the business for ways of boosting capacities that might not fly with Captain Obvious. Here’s a sampling of what we found, clustered into what seem to be the four main approaches.
Discoveries in space.
If there’s a protected space that won’t count toward the capacity caps, operators are finding ways of recasting it into a service area.
Part of Cracker Barrel’s country-store shtick is an old-timey covered porch at the front of the retro concept, replete with rocking chairs where customers might do tempted to do some whittlin’. The rockers are being scrapped and replaced with restaurants and chairs, an initiative that CEO Sandy Cochran hailed as a key to boosting the family chain’s capacity. She explained that the open-air area can hold five or six tables, each a four-top. About 350 of the chain’s restaurants have already added what the home office is marketing as Front Porch Dining.
Some Texas Roadhouse units had a room to the side of the front door, where patrons could wait in pre-pandemic times until their tables were ready. That space is now being turned into pickup stations where patrons or third-party delivery drivers can grab to-go orders.
Oyster Oyster, a restaurant in Washington, D.C. that’s been described as a Chuck E. Cheese’s for adults, has taken over an atrium leading into the parking garage of a neighboring supermarket. The space has a ceiling but no enclosing walls. The fun-and-food establishment has turned the space into what it’s calling Oyster Garage, where for two hours a single party can eat, drink and play games—at $400 a booking.
The 70 Red Robin units located at inline malls have worked with their landlords to put tables outside in shared spaces. “Using the mall throughways and the mall walk spaces has helped,” says Jason Rusk, VP of business innovation for the full-service burger chain. “That’s been very popular.”
‘A little help, local governments?’
With officials dickering in the nation’s capital over direct aid to restaurants, some state and civic governments are helping local eateries survive by collaborating with restaurant constituents on ways to provide more outdoor seating. The initiatives have come in forms big and small.
Rhode Island has earmarked $1 million for a program called Take It Outside. The funds are being distributed in grants of up to $150,000 to business groups such as chambers of commerce and tourism councils, which in turn channel the money down to local enterprises that benefit from outdoor activities, al fresco dining among them. The funds can be spent on such things as tables, chairs, tents, outdoor heaters, remote lighting, additional insurance fees and even WiFi service. Officials are also allowing sidewalks, public parking and other state or local-government-owned spaces to be turned into outdoor dining areas.
Port Washington, N.Y., a town of 16,000 on the north coast of Long Island (and home to this writer), set up outdoor picnic tables at a town-owned dock to provide more seating for local restaurants. Posted amid them is a billboard listing the establishments and their phone numbers, with an accompanying QR code that flashes a reader to the places’ websites or delivery menus. A second sign explains that browsers are encouraged to have a meal delivered from a local establishment to one of the provided tables.
The Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Ill., is similarly providing communal outdoor dining space by erecting tents large enough to host a circus. Tables and heaters are provided in lieu of clowns and dancing bears. The town has said it spent $65,000 on the tents and expects to lay out another $47,000 to heat them.
Bods in pods
If a temporary sidewalk structure can keep a small party warm, dry and shielded from potential infection carriers, chances are a restaurant somewhere is already trying it as a way of adding weather-resistant outdoor seating. Inspiration from NASA engineers, would-be moon colonists and members of the Jetson family have led eating places to stud the spaces outside their doors with additional capacity in the form of bubbles, pods, mini-greenhouses, yurts, teepees and riffs on she-sheds.
Chicago hopes to add to the possibilities through a contest co-run with the Illinois Restaurant Association, the design firm IDEO and BMO Harris Bank. Launched in the summer, the competition invited anyone with an idea for protecting outdoor diners from Chicago’s notorious winters to submit their notion. The best suggestion will earn its creator a cash prize of $5,000, with the public participating in the judging.
The ideas to date have ranged from repurposing under-used city buses into stationary open-windowed dining cars (full disclosure: an idea submitted by a colleague at our parent company) to forming ice caves kept intact by the very weather they’re meant to defeat (see our sidebar for some of the zanier suggestions.) Most are pods, bubbles or open-air cube farms with a unique way of providing heat, such as via a radiating table.
Not all of the outdoor hedges against Mother Nature are so out there. Pazza Notte in New York City is relying on conventional tables arrayed in a sidewalk seating area similar to the ones that can be found anywhere in Manhattan. But the popular Italian joint is providing blankets to outdoor diners upon request.
Tents on steroids
When restaurant dining rooms were shut down state by state, operators immediately started hunting for ways of moving seats outdoors. Red Robin was one of them.
“We did umbrellas and pop-up tents to get them going really quick,” said Rusk. “As we headed into wintertime, we found an opportunity to get something more structural. Think of it as a tent that has walls and windows, like what you’d see at a wedding reception. We installed them on existing patios, so you’re able to use your liquor license. They’re heated with heaters that use propane.”
A typical one measures 20 feet by 40 feet, which is sufficient to house 12 to 15 four-tops without any shoehorning. “What people appreciate the most is the space between tables,” notes Rusk.
“For a couple thousand dollars, you can get these things up relatively inexpensively,” he continues. “The key there is to use as much of the indoor stuff outside as you can and make it as welcoming as possible using things you have in the restaurant,” such as logos or other adornments that convey a sense of the brand.
Servers in the spaces were provided with handhelds, a technology that Red Robin was adopting in any case as part of a service update.
About 150 units have been outfitted with the bigger, more stable tents. Red Robin CEO Paul Murphy hailed the winterized tents as a major reason for a sales rebound at company stores to 64.6% of pre-pandemic levels by early August.
Because a majority of the chain’s units are located in areas that aren’t renowned for their harsh winters, including California, the chain expects to keep the tents in operation through much of the winter, and will have them ready as spring arrives.
“There will probably be a point in some markets where customers say, ‘No, it’s too cold,’” says Rusk. “But we haven’t reached it yet.”