The approach of autumn leaves restaurateurs worrying about the loss of outdoor dining spaces. COVID-19 has left restaurants trying to survive despite having to cut capacity (by 50% in many cases) to respect distancing laws. Outdoor spaces and patios let them open more tables, while helping attract pandemic-wary diners.
“People like to be on patios, even more so during the pandemic,” says Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia (RANS). “If you’re going to a patio and you’re outside, you don’t have to wear your mask. You can walk right up to the patio and sit down, order food, eat, and leave. Just for the general consumer, it’s easy to use the patio, and then there’s the hope people feel safer around patios.”
Stewart says that efforts are underway with municipalities, including HRM, to extend the patio season. Additionally, year-round patios could gain a lot more appeal.
“You’ve seen a number of those [restaurants] now like on Argyle Street, where there’s three or four right in a row there with those tarp patios built out, built like permanent structures,” he says. “Those people will start to add heaters, maybe some plastic around to extend their season out a little bit more, so they are making adjustments as much as possible to extend their season.”
Restaurateurs are wracking their brains for ways to bring customers back. Showing that their spaces are safe is crucial to the effort. “It’s the safest place to go now because the restaurant’s due diligence is so high; they’re being inspected regularly,” Stewart says. “If you compare that, for example to going to a hardware or a grocery store, yes, they wear a mask, but when we walk inside, people aren’t separating, they’re all close, they are handling everything… So the due diligence is low, compared to a restaurant which is completely high.”
Dine-in restaurants have increased takeout and delivery options. RANS also helped convince government to allow beer, wine, and cider sales as part of those options. Stewart expects takeout and delivery sales will increase as the weather cools.
“it’s a new area for a lot of sit-down restaurants but it’s one that is going to continue in the future,” he says. “You will see a lot of changes in delivering. There are some big partners out there, but what you will see is a lot of independent people make the jump into that field and start bumping the big players out of the way. The cost of delivery is so expensive, and it can be as much as 25% of the meal price alone, which is just not worth it for many operations.”
Before the pandemic, RANS was forecasting 4% growth for 2020. As sectors that funnel traffic to restaurants (like tourism, cruise, sports, entertainment, conventions, and meetings) continue to lag, restaurateurs face prolonged pain, trying to survive while paying bills, payroll, rent, and health and safety expenses.
“At some point, this pandemic will end and we’ll start going back to normalcy, but… there’s going to be an awful lot of structural damage done to the food and beverage sector,” Stewart says. “The slow rebuild of the business is going to be very challenging. There will be survival, but that damage will depend upon how long we are going to keep restaurants locked down or have limitations set on them.”