Post #875: Preparing for a hard winter, 6: Restaurants

Posted on October 22, 2020

Source:  This one is in Denver.  Google “outdoor dining igloo” to see numerous other examples.



I’ve addressed the issue of outdoor restaurant seating on several occasions, most recently in Post #830.   In that last post, I noted that Fairfax County was considering changing its regulations to allow fully-enclosed and heated tents to count as outdoor restaurant seating.

The change

Yesterday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved that change.  And more.  As of today, a fully-enclosed and heated tent counts as outdoor seating.

As described per the news reporting cited above, the purpose of this is to provide more room for social distancing while eating.  That suggests to me that they knew what they were doing, as discussed in Post #830.   Meaning, that from a COVID-19 standpoint, these new enclosed tents are effectively indoor dining.  So far, there seems to be no intent to characterize these newly created indoor spaces as being as safe as true open-air outdoor dining.

In other words, dining in a parking lot does not provide mystical protection against COVID-19.  It’s dining in the open air that greatly reduces potential for disease transmission.  And, so far, it looks like there’s full acknowledgement that enclosing and heating these temporary structures is just a way to create more indoor dining space.

What’s the “and more” part?  You’ll have to read the proposed ordinance (starting page 52 of this document .pdf) to see all of the changes.  But, among other things, at the same time as they allowed fully-enclosed heated tents, they stripped out some of the fire-prevention clauses, and allowed the tents to be placed closer to buildings.

Source:  Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, starting around page 52 (.pdf)

Restaurant owners still cannot use flame-based heaters in or near tents.  So anything in the tent would have to be electric (at least, that’s how I read it).

These changes explicitly do not apply to the Town of Vienna (or Herndon or Clifton), so if the Town of Vienna is going to follow suit, it will have to make its own changes.  For whatever reason, Fairfax did this via a public hearing, which is a cumbersome process.

I have no clue whether Vienna will follow suit or not, but given the apparently dire situation for many full-service restaurants, and our heavy reliance on restaurants on the Maple Avenue commercial corridor, I would not be surprised.

Finally, I note that many localities are adopting outdoor dining ordinances that allow for partial enclosure of outdoor dining spaces.  I’m not sure that I’ve see many that allow for full enclosure.  In any case, if you Google it, you’ll see that this is being actively considered all over the country.

The inevitable COVID-driven shortage.


County fire regulations bar the use of open flame devices in tents.  Likely, then, we are talking about electric patio heaters (only) if we are talking about heated,enclosed tents.

If every restaurant owner in America tries to buy patio heaters now, will there be enough to to around?  I think we’ve been through this drill enough times during the pandemic to know the answer.

Is there a shortage of “patio heaters” happening (yet)?  Of course there is.  Has been for weeks now. 

As of 10/4/2020:

  • Home Depot showed most of those as “out of stock on-line”, many showing “limit 2 per order”.
  • Lowes showed all the tall free-standing one as unavailable for pickup or for delivery.
  • Amazon continued to show them as routinely available, but if you check delivery dates, they often stretch into December.
And newspaper reporting will verify that this is a nation-wide phenomenon.  Just a smattering of quotes:

"And the restaurant ordered heat lamps six months ago, but Armstrong says he hears “you can't find them to save your life” now.", restaurant owner quoted in this reporting.

Outdoor heater sales spike, per Business Insider.

"“Patio heaters are just like toilet paper—sold out,” she says."  from this source.

I NOTE HOWEVER, that old-fashioned heat lamps are still well stocked, costing about $7 for a 250-watt heat lamp.  Interesting to me, if you factor in the inverse-square-law nature of radiant heat, a 15,000 watt heater situated 10′ away would provide the same level of infrared irradiance as four 250 watt bulbs hung about 2.5′ away.  In other words, hanging 1000 watts of infrared bulbs inside a canopy, directly over a table, would provide about as much heat as having a 15,000 watt heater running 10′ away.  Just a thought, if you can’t get your hands on a proper space heater.  These should ideally be used with ceramic sockets and wire enclosures, due to the heat generated.

Survey says … , or why restaurants should think twice before enclosing outdoor spaces.

In a nutshell:  There aren’t a lot of people who are comfortable with eating indoors.  If those full-enclosed and heated tents are perceived as “indoor space”, you might actually end up with fewer diners.

So, what do national or local surveys say about willingness to use restaurants?  The results vary, but only modestly, depending on the exact survey.  Here’s the gist of it, from one recent survey.  If you do the math, it looks like maybe ~10% of the potential customer base is comfortable with indoor restaurant dining.

August 2020 survey from Sevenrooms booking service, 1,237 Americans from July 31-Aug. 3, as reported at this URL.

  • 25% would not feel comfortable dining out at all until a vaccine becomes available
  • 23%, said they’ll stick with pickup or delivery for the rest of the year,
  • 38% of those polled said they are “looking forward” to dining out again over the next three months.
    • Of the respondents who said they are interested in dining out again:
    • 29% said they were comfortable with indoor seating
    • 42% who said they’d be comfortable with outdoor seating.

(Note that neither set of statistics adds to 100%).

The upshot is that individuals comfortable with indoor dining amount to about 11% of those surveyed (.38 x .29).  I realize this is just one survey, but a variety of other surveys seemed to give roughly that same split.

A current Eater Detroit on-line poll shows: roughly the same splits as the above, but in addition, they asked people who were dining now, in outdoor areas, whether they would continue to do so in the winter.  (Remember, this is Detroit).  Only 45% of current customers would continue to dine out-of-doors without some form of fully-enclosed shelter, although a further 9% would migrate to indoor dining.

Source:   Detroit Eater.

Although the statistics on both of these are kind of sloppy, my takeaway is that there’s a chunk of business at restaurants now that is there strictly for open-air dining.  So enclosing and heating tents may or may not bring in more diners, depending on how they view those tents (as indoor our outdoor), and how constrained a restaurant is for true indoor dining space.

Just how badly are restaurants doing these days?

Here, I can only offer national numbers.   But at least they are solid national numbers.  The upshot is that fast-food and similar dining seems to be doing just fine.  But that, unsurprisingly, full-service sit-down restaurants are hurting.  Here are the numbers.

Revenues in full-service restaurants, and fast-food restaurants are down 30% and 0% respectively (in July 2020, relative to July 2019).  Based on industry employment data, revenues in bars are likely down much more than 30%.  (These were the most recent data available when I constructed this table a couple of weeks ago.)

(Full service means waitress service, pay after you eat; limited service means order and pay first, no waitress service.  Any take out or delivery services associated with a full service restaurant are counted as full-service.  Exact industry definitions are here:

So, nationally at least, the restaurant business is not the flaming disaster it was back in April, when revenues in full-service restaurants fell to about one-quarter their normal amount.  But the situation is not good.

Restaurants are largely getting by on the basis of take-out orders and outdoor dining.  And as the weather cools, that outdoor dining space will become less appealing.  Hence, in Fairfax County, restaurant owners will now have the option to roll down the sides of the tents and add heaters.  At some level, as long as everybody understands the health implications, that seems like a reasonable accommodation to me.