5 Tips for Managing a Cafe When Patio Season Ends

The year 2020 understandably saw an uptick in patio usage, which kept many faltering cafes afloat. OpenTable, a digital restaurant reservation provider, counted a tenfold increase in outdoor seating in the spring of 2020 compared to a year ago.

But as it does every year, patio season in many areas is coming to an end and your cafe processes change. Those cafes that recaptured so much of their lost business now face substantial revenue loss if they don’t quickly adapt.

Creatively making up for lost revenue opportunities is no easy task, but it’s far from impossible. There are plenty of innovative ways for cafes and restaurants to not only survive but thrive.

Winter is coming, and here are five cafe management tips to help you embrace the cold weather with vigor:

1. Offer Family Meals To-Go

Every resource on the planet right now tells you that takeout is your best option to weather the storm, and for good reason. People aren’t going to stop eating because it gets cold outside. On the contrary: they may even eat out more around the holidays.

Takeout options are the next best weapon in your arsenal. And the best part about it is that it takes fewer resources. Takeout is far from new, but there has recently been a growing trend of “family” meals to go.

Join the growing list of restaurants, cafes, and fast-food restaurants offering a simple dinner option for the whole family. The vast majority offer an economical meal full of protein, sides, and drinks. Many even provide appetizer and dessert options.

The concept is simple: instead of dealing with the hassle of having the whole family look over a menu and figure out what they want, they can just pick up a family-style meal where everyone eats the same thing.

2. Give People High-Quality Food to Cook At Home

Some meals simply taste better fresh. Longhorn Steakhouse knows this and sells fresh cuts and seasonings so that you can prepare prime steaks at home. They also come with cold sides that are ready to heat.

One of the coolest things about sending uncooked food home is that it becomes an experience. You’re turning dining out into an at-home experience and culinary lesson. People love to cook and level up their skills to show off to their family and friends or simply enjoy better meals at home.

Longhorn Steaks also creates “how-to” guides on how to grill the perfect steak. You could do the same thing and take it a step further with YouTube videos. The sky’s the limit here. It could even become a recurring series where people buy the ingredients and can “tune in” each week.

3. Leverage the Power of Alcohol To-Go

It’s tough to replace the high-margin alcohol beverages patrons consume when they’re sitting down for a meal. Thankfully, in 2020, a rapidly growing list of states now offers alcohol for takeout and delivery.

Keep in mind that:

  • The rules vary from state to state, so it’s best to do your research
  • You still have to present an ID to purchase
  • It’s encouraged to tell patrons to drink responsibly.

None of that’s hard to do, and everyone wins. Alcohol to-go could be a big boost throughout the winter season. Especially if you have fun with it!

Create new drinks specifically for your takeout menu. Run contests to name one after a customer this winter. Offer discounts or BOGO on takeout drinks to get people trying it out. Or, take a lesson from above and teach virtual mixology classes.

4. Provide a Cozy Outdoor Atmosphere

Sure, it may be literally freezing outside, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give people the option to sit outside. It’s not unusual for bars, cafes, and restaurants to keep outdoor seating available well into the winter season in places like Canada and Scandinavia.

You may need to upgrade the patio a bit by:

  • Swapping out the metal chairs for wood ones
  • Breaking out the propane-fueled patio heaters
  • Setting out wicker baskets filled to the brim with communal quilts and blankets
  • Offering oversized jackets as they do at ice sculpture events.
  • Selling some ugly holiday sweaters to make it more fun
  • Providing free coffee or hot chocolate with every purchase on the patio
  • Handing out disposable hand warmers
  • Setting up windbreakers and, if permissible, investing in a fire pit or fireplace of some kind
  • Throwing up a tent with roll-down window sides so they can get the outdoor feel with the benefits of indoor seating

If you end up getting a fire pit area, then offering s’mores is a must. Change up your menu in the winter to offer more stews, soups, and wintery comfort food.

5. Find Ways to Creatively Cut Costs & Streamline Operations

If you can’t recuperate lost revenue from patio season ending, then perhaps it’s time to find ways to reduce your costs. One simple way to reduce your operating costs is to slim down your menu offering. A leaner menu means fewer ingredients to buy, less food waste, and lower labor costs on food prep.

A less popular way to cut costs is reducing hours. You could pick a slow day like Monday and close the cafe completely through the winter. Or, if you have multiple locations, consider temporarily closing or consolidating some of them. Consider cutting breakfast or brunch too. That will save on ingredients and payroll costs.

If cutting hours or streamlining your menu isn’t an option, then look for other opportunities to boost your efficiency. For instance, using an employee scheduling software like ZoomShift can help you closely monitor labor hours and overtime, so you stay on top of unnecessary labor costs. It also helps ensure your shifts are always covered and keeps your team on the same page.

Outdoor seating became the champion everyone needed, but all is not lost just because it’s getting colder. You just have to look in the right places and plan ahead.

Sam Molony

Sam Molony is the marketing strategist at ZoomShift, the leading employee scheduling software. When Sam's not publishing or promoting new content you can find him playing his guitar or baking.

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