Outdoor Dining Is The 'New Normal' For Restaurants

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Source: Atlanta Business Chronicle

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Umi restaurant in Buckhead never provided takeout. Not only that, they never even allowed diners to take “doggy bags” home. 

“We did not allow one grain of rice to leave the restaurant because we didn’t want to compromise the integrity of the food by having it get cold and be reheated in a microwave,” said Umi co-owner Farshid Arshid.  

That protocol changed one Friday in mid-March, after Atlanta businesses closed in response to the pandemic. 

“I met with our staff and said, ‘Do we want to start takeout now?’ Their immediate response was, ‘Yes. We want to do what we need to in order to stay open,’” Arshid recalled.  

Umi’s takeout was a hit, he said.

“You would drive down Peachtree [Road] and see no life basically until you got within a mile of the restaurant. Then you saw this line of cars backed up waiting to drive through our lot to pick up their orders.” 

The restaurant opened indoor dining again after July 4 weekend. Business was low until Arshid and Umi co-owner Charlie Hendon decided to make another change: creating an outdoor dining space. 

To survive and even thrive during a pandemic where indoor restaurant service is considered a high risk, dining establishments throughout the metro area have turned to their outdoor spaces. The South’s temperate weather has always allowed for this popular choice but today, it is almost crucial for business. 

“We started outdoor dining about a month and a half ago,” Arshid said, adding that their landlord helped create a covered space that accommoates up to 40 patrons with social distancing. For ambiance, it features an eight-foot bonsai tree Arshid and Hendon ordered from Seattle.  

The space, combined with takeout and indoor dining, has helped the restaurant regain revenues to match what it was bringing in pre-Covid, according to Arshid. 

“Nobody is seeing the travel dollars we were seeing, and that alone can take your business out 30 percent,” he said. “But when you add takeout, that number can go to being down just 17 percent, and then when you add outdoor dining, you can be whole or even whole-plus some nights.” 

Adding outdoor dining also boosted business for Storico Fresco in Buckhead Exchange and Forza Storico in West Midtown, said co-owner Pietro Gianni. 

“It’s been amazing. It’s everyone’s first choice [for seating],” Gianni said. “Thankfully, the landlords at both locations worked with us, and we were able to expand our outdoor space, which is great because we are doing mostly pre-Covid numbers now.” 

At Forza Storico, Gianni and his business partners added an oversized wedding tent to space adjacent to the restaurant, which can accommodate up to 70 patrons. They will use outdoor heaters during winter. During the day, Gianni has opened the tent area  for free to other groups, including sports teams and actual wedding parties. 

At Storico Fresco, Gianni accomplished something he said all restaurant leaders in the city of Atlanta should consider: he requested a Right of Way permit, which allows him to use some areas that would be public passage for patron seating. The permit allowed him to add eight two-person tables outdoors. 

Gianni and his partners also added $15,000 hospital-grade HVAC filtration systems to both restaurants. They encourage staff to be Covid tested every 10 days and require staff to wear masks for their entire six-hour shifts.  

In Edgewood, outdoor dining has also gone “very, very well” at El Tesoro Mexican restaurant, according to managing partner Alan Raines. The popular neighborhood spot has moved to all outdoor seating with umbrellas and sail shades. 

During the first few months of the pandemic, El Tesoro was primarily for takeout. 

“Initially, we did suffer large losses in sales [of about] 50 percent, but as we moved to expanding outdoor options, we saw quick recovery to usual numbers,” Raines said. “Now have seen growth in sales over best previous numbers and continue to see growth.” 

Today, with the new outdoor configuration, “we have now grown to over 110 outdoor seats,” said Raines, adding that he plans to add fire pits to the 5,000-square-foot lawn/patio area and another 50 seats in the spring.  

Outdoor dining is the new normal for restaurants into the foreseeable future, he added. 

“This is a way people can feel comfortable being in public,” Raines said. “Our master plan always had the large lawn/patio space as a major part of our seating concept, so it will always be in play for us. Outdoor dining has been the difference between staying open with some to-go business and being open at full force.”  

Read the article at Atlanta Business Chronicle here.