- The National Restaurant Association sent a letter to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Tuesday urging local leaders to expand outdoor dining allowances, streamline permitting processes, provide funding for outdoor dining infrastructure and promote outdoor dining efforts to help restaurants through the winter.
- Outdoor dining makes up 20% or more of daily sales at 68% of full-service restaurants, per the association. Despite this lifeline, a majority (61%) of full-service restaurants can only use their outdoor space through October, and just 30% plan to utilize outdoor seating throughout the entire season.
- This letter comes as expiration dates for expanded outdoor dining programs loom in several cities. In Metuchen, New Jersey, restaurant tents erected to support outdoor dining are required to be removed by Dec. 1. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday the city could revoke permissions for unused outdoor dining areas and revert them back to parking.
The association argues that outdoor dining is a crucial lifeline for restaurants as indoor dining sales decline due to growing customer concerns about the coronavirus delta variant. In certain markets, the gains restaurants have made via expanded patio, sidewalk and street dining could be under threat — New York City has already removed dozens of "abandoned, non-compliant or destroyed" outdoor dining structures, for example.
Six in 10 adults report they have changed their dining plans because of rising COVID-19 cases, according to the NRA, and nearly one in five diners have stopped dining out entirely. But August NRA data found that 19% of consumers say they prefer to eat outside than inside, though its unclear if this sentiment will hold steady as temperatures drop. Many operators also weren't able to make investments that would make outdoor dining possible through the winter, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Last year, several municipalities and restaurant-adjacent companies offered winterization grants, and the NRA is calling on leaders to provide the same support this year as the industry's recovery stagnates on delta variant fears and the historic labor shortage.
Some city initiatives around outdoor dining support have been met with mixed reviews. The Chicago Alfresco space just opened to enable consumers to dine and gather outdoors, but several businesses are frustrated by the timing of the program, since it comes right before outdoor dining season is set to close in the city. When Chicago's outdoor dining program first debuted last year, some restaurateurs struggled to get permits and the city hasn't yet announced if the program will extend beyond the end of this year.
Still, states and cities around the country are pushing legislation that would bolster restaurants' outdoor dining business. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a measure in October extending expanded outdoor dining in the state. City councils in towns like Westport, Connecticut, and Philadelphia have proposed bills to make outdoor dining permanent. In Philadelphia, expanded outdoor dining structures are currently slated to be removed by the end of the year.
The NRA's call for outdoor dining aid also comes in the absence of additional, targeted restaurant aid from the federal government. The Restaurant Revitalization Fund remains dry, with no further action from Congress to refill it expected at this time.
"Expanded outdoor dining cannot replace robust consumer demand for indoor dining or Congress taking action to replenish the RRF, yet it is critically needed to help the industry survive the winter," Mike Whatley, NRA's VP of state affairs and grassroots advocacy, wrote in the letter.