Extend the Season—Cold Weather Outdoor Dining Strategies for Restaurants

October 8, 2020
min read
Wisely’s Winter is Coming content series will explore revenue building strategies for restaurants when cold weather restricts dine-in sales. The series will cover:
Subscriptions for Restaurants
Cold Weather Outdoor Dining Strategies
How to Maximize Profits via Gift Card Strategy

oosting profits on-premise, with restricted capacity in the dining room, will demand some ingenuity. Experts say that to return to and grow beyond pre-COVID sales, businesses will have to get creative to recover revenue. To survive the upcoming winter, the most innovative brands will look for ways to extend the outdoor dining season.

This article outlines the must-haves for cold-weather outdoor dining, ops how-tos, and creative strategies restaurant brands can try to keep patios (and parking lot picnic tables) full all winter long.

Outdoor Dining Must Haves

This quick list can help keep customers top-of-mind when designing a cold-weather outdoor dining experience.

  • Protection From the Elements: Comfort is key for a sit down meal. Outdoor heaters, and branded blankets can keep the patio comfortable longer. Tents, bonfires, even greenhouses are creative ways to keep a non-traditional outdoor space attractive to guests through the winter.
  • Pandemic Safety: Restaurants have been able to maintain outdoor dining through the pandemic because of the safety that comes with reliable air flow. Any winter outdoor dining spaces should maintain air flow and social distancing. In some cities, outdoor dining that is fully enclosed will have the same capacity restrictions as indoor dining.
  • Thoughtful Menu:  An outdoor dining menu with warm drinks and hearty fare can help keep guests warm and comfortable. Bonus—double-down on the nostalgia of bonfire faves like hot cocoa and s’mores or warm cider, cocktails, and mulled wine.
  • Seamless Guest Experience: Use technology (like an online waitlist, and contactless payment) to streamline the guest experience from check-in to payment. These tools ensure that the guests’ time outside is value added for them—i.e. spent dining and enjoying rather than waiting.


The right systems and tools can make the outdoor dining experience seamless for restaurant ops and frictionless for guests.

Get ‘Em in the Outdoors

With the right technology, you can capture guests online from seach (proven to increase covers 3-5%), social, or the restaurant’s website.

  • Online reservations make it stress-free for guests to book an outdoor table
  • An online waitlist can reduce abandonment & help manage capacity
  • Prepaid reservations are proven to reduce no-shows

Rethink Payment Options

Payment options are not one-size fits all—the key here is to pick the tools that make for the best guest experience, and add ease & predictability for ops.

  • Contactless payment at the table
  • Prepaid reservations that include food and drink
  • Free events with snacks & drinks for sale & a take-home meal station

Restaurant CRM For the Win

Actionable guest data makes design, promotion, follow-up, and refinement of outdoor dining experiences easy and impactful.

  • A CRM that tracks and analyzes guest data can help identify which outdoor experiences would attract valuable guests
  • Targeted email campaigns to engaged guest segments can boost outdoor dining sales — guests that receive personalized emails are 32% more likely to return
  • Marketing Automation can trigger feedback requests after outdoor dining to build trust with the guest, and get crucial info to improve the experience

Out-of-the-Box Outdoor Dining Ideas

What should restaurants try first? Here’s some inspo from the industry and community to spark creative outdoor dining ideas.

  • Redefine the Working Lunch: Extend WiFi to the parking lot and promote a parking lot business lunch — fast & car friendly menu items to eat in the car while checking email or joining the latest zoom meeting (Panera is doing an interesting version of this.)
  • Partner with Local Farmers (who need the support, now more than ever):  Feature special menu updates in your outdoor space based on winter produce. (Bonus: make the most of the partnership with a Restaurant CSA that partners meal kits with fresh produce.)
  • Family Dinner & A Movie Night: Turn the parking lot into a drive-in theater with a family friendly menu. (For a possibly quicker lift, and a built in audience, partner with local schools that have movie night licenses.)
  • Tempt the Beer Club: Promote an outdoor Winter Ale tasting or Oktoberfest event to Club Members, and build the club by promoting the event to lookalikes on social media.
  • COVID-Safe Holidays: Take a page from the local PTO and book reservations for outdoor “trick or treat” stations. Or get your inspo from German Christmas markets and allow guests to book meetings with Santa—either way parents will be up for snacks and drinks.
  • Remember Book-It? Help out stressed parents by hosting an outdoor weekly kids enrichment activity/study time that includes a pre-ordered take home meal or on-site dinner.
  • Block Party: Partnering with other businesses on the block can be a great way to quickly uplift an event that actually gets feet on the streets. Think a Black Friday Event featuring a shopper feuling station for coffee and breakfast sandwiches (or cocktails and snacks).

Make Outdoor Dining High Impact

Boosting on-prem sales is a worthy bottom-line goal, but done right, winter outdoor dining could:

  • Provide low-cost opportunities for new guest acquisition 
  • Drive a crucial second visit with automated comms
  • Maintain the frequency of long-term valuable guests
  • Bolster brand relationship and customer lifetime value

How can brands get the most out of a winter outdoor dining strategy? Target the right guests, adopt the right tools and systems, and track the impact on both sales and customer experience. Extending the outdoor dining season can position brands to quickly recover revenue, survive the winter, and emerge ready to grow.

Photo Credit: Krisztina Papp