COVID-19 has forced restaurant owners and operators to turn their operational strategies on a dime. After reopening in May and June, the CDC and state governments provided guidance for inside dining, but even with reduced seating, 73 percent of people are uncomfortable dining indoors at a restaurant.
As a result, the industry is seeing a tenfold increase in outdoor seating compared to this time last year. For operators that don’t already have an existing space designated for outdoor dining, this is a challenge. Many restaurants are having to improvise to create outdoor seating arrangements, and typically they're turning to their parking lots … but it can also be a challenge to transition these spaces safely.
To make sure consumer health and safety is prioritized, operators should be auditing lots for quick repairs, adjusting signage to control traffic, as well as taking care of outside factors like city permits and permissions.
Auditing Lots for Damage and Quickly Conducting Repairs
When transitioning restaurant lots to dining space, operators will have to quickly audit lots for damage and get repairs scheduled and completed before opening the space.
Looking for items like potholes, cracks, and rutting – which is when the pavement shows grooves from wear and tear – should be high priority during the audit process. Identifying these problems ahead of calling a contractor can help to expedite the repair process by setting expectations early about the kinds of repairs the site needs.
During the auditing process, gathering a quantitative level of damage and the severity of damage should be the two focal points. Quantitative damage level will document the number of damaged areas a lot has. The severity of the damage will help provide contractors with context on the level of damage, so they can come up with a solution that is best for the longevity of the lot. These two pieces of data will help a paving contractor provide a realistic estimate and timeline for repairs.
With how quickly contractors are booking up – knowing that many businesses are seeking out services to better utilize their outdoor spaces – this should be the first step in the transition process.
Adjusting Signage to Control Traffic
Taking parking lot space and turning it into dining space outside redirects the flow of traffic in a parking lot. To make sure people know where to park and which ways to drive, restaurant operators need to be diligent about creating new signage that clearly defines new traffic flow.
Some signs to consider are:
- Dining area signs: Signs that clarify where dining areas begin and end are necessary to help direct patrons, as well as make drivers aware of where they should slow down. These signs will need to be both inside the restaurant to direct customers as well as in the parking lot to direct drivers.
- Pedestrian crossing signs: These should be located in the parking lot so customers looking to park in the rearranged lot know where to be cognizant of walkers and slower traffic.
- Directional parking signs: Signs indicating where parking is, versus where dining is, should be placed at entry points of restaurant lots. This will help to eliminate any confusion for patrons as they try to find parking, knowing the lot size will be reduced. Patrons need to know where to go as soon as they turn into a parking lot, so operators may even want additional signage facing the street, especially for patrons that are used to going an entirely different direction than the way it is marked following the transition.
Handling Outside Factors and City Permissions
While permissions for outdoor dining differ based on location, restaurant owners should always check with city health officials on which permits are required, as well as which guidelines must be followed.
Most cities have a form on their website for operators to submit a request for an outdoor dining permit. For example, L.A.’s mayor is allowing permits to be submitted and approved digitally, and permits will last for 90 days. In L.A., bars that have liquor licenses are also allowed to serve alcohol within the approved outdoor space. Many cities have specific, individual guidelines for outdoor dining during the pandemic that include distancing protocols, numbers of walking lanes, barricades, and the square footage allowed.
Some cities have designated specific streets for outdoor dining, as well as specific instructions for sidewalk dining and curb lanes. At this point, most restaurants have to submit a request for approval for parking lot dining, but the majority of cities have streamlined the process to rush these requests throughout COVID-19.
Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is certain: restaurant owners need to act quickly to transition to expand outdoor dining space. Since the majority of consumers continue to be uncomfortable dining indoors and the pandemic shows no signs of fizzling out over the next several months, creating outdoor dining space will help bolster business for restaurants during these challenging times. Prioritizing conversations with a trusted paving contractor, signage vendor, and city officials will help owners stay on top of the transition and weather the storm of the pandemic.