Bubbles, tents and greenhouses: Restaurants get creative to keep outdoor diners warm

Key Points
  • Restaurant owners are turning to igloos, tents and other structures to keep their outdoor diners protected from the elements and warm as temperatures fall. 
  • A recent study from AccuWeather and Foursquare explored the relationship between weather and restaurant traffic during the pandemic, finding that more favorable temperatures and humidity boosted visits.
People enjoy outdoor dining amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 14, 2020.
Jeenah Moon | Reuters

Ice huts, yurts and tents have been growing in popularity over the last several years as restaurateurs looked to extend the life of their outdoor patios.

This year, the popularity of such structures is soaring, thanks to capacity limits restricting the number of diners inside restaurants. 

The coronavirus pandemic has forced restaurant owners to get creative to keep their businesses afloat. Florida is among the few states that have allowed bars and restaurants to return to full capacity, but the overwhelming majority of eateries are still navigating how to attract as many customers as possible while obeying social distancing measures. Some operators responded to expanded outdoor dining with set-ups meant to reflect the aesthetic of their indoor dining rooms. 

But seating customers outside also means reckoning with the weather. Heavy rainfall in the summertime in New York decreased restaurant visits by 14%, according to a recent study of restaurant traffic and weather trends from Foursquare and AccuWeather. The season, city and type of cuisine can also influence how much weather can affect a restaurant's traffic trends.

"We see, across the board, no matter where you are, it doesn't matter what condition it is, people are going out in the fall," said Bill McGarry, senior vice president of advertising sales at AccuWeather. "Whereas in the winter, in New York, you see when it's really cold, nobody's going out."

Some restaurant owners are trying to buck the trend with cozy, heated outdoor set-ups. But others are choosing to go into hibernation rather than sink more money into outdoor dining. Fiberglass igloos, for example, cost $1,000 a pop. 

Here's a few solutions that restaurants across the country are trying:

A16 in Oakland, California

A16's outdoor parklet
Source: A16

Italian eatery A16 has set up outdoor tents hanging off of a wooden frame to keep its customers warm. Co-owner Shelley Lindgren said that the restaurant is planning to put a roof on the parklet and install heat lamps. Its San Francisco location, which tends to be cooler at nighttime, already has heat lamps.

Coconut Club in Washington, D.C.

Coconut Club's greenhouse
Source: Coconut Club

The island-inspired restaurant has erected a greenhouse outside with an electric heater to help keep its customers warm. A pop-up tent is cheap and breaks easily, while wedding tents are expensive and aren't meant to stay outside that long, co-owner Emily Cipes told the Washingtonian. So the restaurant chose a 33-foot commercial greenhouse instead.

Cafe du Soleil in New York City

Outdoor dining bubbles at Cafe Du Soleil
Will Feuer, CNBC

Customers sitting outside at the French restaurant located on Manhattan's Upper West Side occupy plastic bubbles that also encompass chairs and tables. 

Owner Alain Chevreux told the New York Times that he bought 16 structures online in July. According to him, the internal temperature of a bubble feels about ten degrees warmer. 

Restaurateur Danny Meyer on the need for more stimulus for restaurants
Restaurateur Danny Meyer on the need for more stimulus for restaurants