How to Winterize Your Restaurant in 2020: Prepping for a COVID-19 Winter

Don't let your restaurant equipment fail you this winter. Read here to learn tips and tricks on how to winterize your restaurant this cold season.

Restaurants have always faced challenges in the winter. 

Slower foot traffic, bad weather, earlier sunsets, and equipment breakdowns caused by the failure to properly winterize a restaurant all pose threats to your bottom line when the seasons change. 

However, in 2020, the hospitality industry is working overtime to make up the lost ground caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling closures. Restaurants straight up can not afford to let opportunities for extra streams of revenue pass by. They also can’t forget to address the basics of winterizing a restaurant if they want to protect their pocketbooks.

What does it mean to winterize a restaurant?

Winterizing a restaurant is a process that staff follow to ensure front-of- house and back-of-house operations are prepared to handle the obstacles posed by inclimate weather that arrives with the chills of October - March. Winterizing can be completed by following a quick checklist, or may entail more detailed action like implementing a new service option or scheduling preventative maintenance appointments. You’re essentially proactively preparing your business to run efficiently and effectively throughout the winter months.

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That’s all well and good, but restaurant operators can’t rely on their same old processes this year. You see, there’s winterizing and then there’s winterizing in 2020 amidst a global pandemic. Restaurant owners and managers should consider what’s worked for them in the past when it comes to prepping for colder months, and what will need to be adjusted to take into account new norms and regulations associated with COVID-19.

Outdoor dining area winter

Five Top Tips to Winterize Your Restaurant During COVID-19

Let’s start with what’s different this year.

Over 100,000 restaurants have closed their doors since the pandemic began in March, either permanently or long-term, according to the National Restaurant Association. 

Even through summer months that are normally a boon for the industry, restaurants across the spectrum were likely to experience lower revenue due to the threat of COVID-19. Now that winter has arrived, it’s even more imperative that restaurants seek out new ways of providing guests with a safe, yet exceptional, dining experience in order to keep their operations running. 

Winterizing your restaurant appropriately can help you accomplish that mission. There have been many ideas thrown into the marketplace (and even some ire spread through social media) about how to create an inviting, but socially-distanced dining space outdoors. The idea is to expand the dining room outside in an effort to maintain enough seats to keep the restaurant profitable. 

Some local associations like the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association are even offering opportunities for restaurants to apply for “weatherization grants” to expand capacity or enhance outdoor spaces to better serve customers. The association stipulates that “construction of permanent structures is not an allowable use”, but offers up a few ideas themselves for the allocation of funds, including temporary structures, fencing and dividers, sanitizing supplies and equipment, and electronic menu access. Grant recipients can even use the funds for delivery charges and labor for installation of key items.

Here are a few more 2020 tips for winterizing your restaurant, and weathering the COVID-19 pandemic during the frigid season:

1) Construct covered areas in your outdoor space

If you’re located in a city with a colder climate, you likely don’t keep an outdoor space operational over winter. This year, things are a bit different, and diners want to continue to eat out at your restaurant - and stay safe. 

Consider building covered sections in your outdoor space (i.e. tents, domes, even mini-greenhouses) to keep diners warm, but safely serviced away from others. Check your local regulations first to ensure this satisfies guidelines, but know that, if given the green light, guests may head to your restaurant just to experience this novel dining setup.

portable heaters for restaurant

2) Bring in portable heaters

If you’re going ahead with an uncovered patio as your outdoor dining plan, portable heaters are a must-have. Even in cities with mild winters, heaters will take the chill out of the air, and make weather the last thing on your diners’ minds as they enjoy your food and take in the ambience. 

Before the season is completely upon us, inspect your portable heaters by ensuring they are functioning correctly, and that you understand their typical maintenance schedule. If a heater goes down unexpectedly, you may lose out on valuable revenue that a bit of preventative maintenance could have saved you.

3) Make it an experience

We’ve seen restaurants thinking outside of the box across the country, bringing in outdoor cooking equipment to let guests have a chef’s table-like experience, installing outdoor fire pits where small groups can gather (within reason, of course), and decorating to the nines to make the dining experience an Instagrammable (and COVID-19-friendly) moment.

4) Keep it comfortable

Now maybe the time to evaluate your outdoor furniture and overall setup. Social distancing rules must be followed, and your current pieces may not allow you to do this effectively and seat enough guests to turn a profit. Spend some time experimenting with new furniture layouts to ensure diners can feel safe while maintaining margins.

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In addition, your outdoor furniture may serve its purpose in the summer months, but could be inappropriate for cooler temperatures. Consider investing in cushioned furniture over cold metal seating, and checking that all furniture is functional and up to your standards. You may even want to include complimentary blankets as a part of your front-of-house experience.

Outdoor restaurant dining in winter

5) Don’t forget snow and ice management

In a typical year, you may allow your patio or outdoor dining space to become a winter wonderland, but in 2020 you need to keep that seating area free of snow and ice. Make sure that you have a snow and ice removal strategy in place (either hiring it out to a trusted vendor or including it in your opening/closing procedures) so that it can remain open for business throughout the season.

Foundational Steps to Winterize Your Restaurant

Preparing your restaurant for winter isn’t just a task for pandemic times. Even in the most normal years (remember those?), it’s important that you thoroughly winterize your restaurant equipment, as well as your dining areas, in order to keep your business operational and safe for your guests.

1) Change equipment filters

We can’t stress this enough - preventative maintenance like cleaning and changing out your air filters can be the difference between a Q1 that is smooth sailing, and one that is fraught with red line items in your budget. Seasonal particulate has a way of gathering in your filters, making it difficult for air to pass through and causing hazardous conditions.

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2) Tune up that HVAC

No heat = no business for a restaurant in the winter. Before the temperatures really plumet, work with a vendor or conduct an audit of your HVAC system yourself. Check the functionality of your thermostat and the cleanliness of your filters. It’s likely been months since you’ve turned on your heat, so now is the time to determine if there are any problems that need to be addressed before furnace season is in full swing.

3) Frozen pipes

Nothing shuts a dinner service down quite like a burst pipe. In the winter, extreme cold can cause the metal pipes that keep your restaurant running to contract and burst, putting your kitchen out of order for an undetermined period of time. To mitigate this risk always keep the temperature of your facility above 60 degrees, and keep a blow dryer on hand in the kitchen to defrost pipes that may start to freeze.

4) Make-up air

Make-up air equipment can warm up fresh air coming into your restaurant from the outdoors, but only about 30 degrees fahrenheit. When temperatures drop far below 0 degrees fahrenheit, this simply won’t cut it for your guests. Evaluate the performance of your make-up air equipment up to this point. Does it work well on mild days, only to leave you disappointed when there’s a chill in the air? We can help you determine if your high fire limit is set too low, and take care of this nuisance before it becomes a problem for your business.

5) Seal up your windows and doors

Drafty windows and doors are a quick way to turn a great customer experience into a complaint that overshadows the entire meal service. Take the time to check that your windows and doors are well-insulated by looking for visible air gaps, using your hand to test for drafts around the perimeter, inspecting insulation foam for damage, and adhering to standardized weathering practices.

6) Address your rooftop dining spaces

Rooftop dining could prove profitable through the winter if pandemic rules and regulations are still in place in your city. Like we mentioned above, it’s pertinent to utilize portable heaters to keep guests comfortable as they dine, or, if you’re planning on closing your rooftop space for the season, be sure to shut off the gas and water in your rooftop kitchen.

7) Have a plan in place for power outages

Blizzard conditions and slick roads may cause unforeseen power outages that can affect your restaurant’s service. Work with a vendor partner to ensure that your restaurant will be protected with backup power in case of an outage, or invest in an onsite generator that will keep your kitchen running and your guests happy.

8) Care about floor care

Your guests may track in snow and slush off the street when they sit down for a meal, creating a slip and fall hazard for other diners and staff. Winterize your restaurant with non-slip mats and runners where necessary, and keep “Wet Floor” signage on hand to remind customers to watch their step. You’ll be protecting your customers while maintaining the integrity of the flooring throughout your restaurant.

9) Focus on parking lot maintenance and sidewalk safety

Protect your customers in your parking lot and on your sidewalk the same way you’d protect them in your restaurant. Proactively partner with a snow and ice removal company to clear drive through lanes, parking spots, and pedestrian walkways whenever it snows in your city. The key word here is proactive - many of these companies book up quickly, so you’ll want to secure your spot on their client list before it’s too late. In a year when carryout and drive-thru business is so critical - don’t overlook this step!

10) Pest control

Pests are one thing that nobody wants to discuss in the same breath as a restaurant. However, winter is the time when pests are most likely to try to enter your building for warmth and shelter. Before snow blankets the ground, investigate the area around your restaurant, looking for any gaps in the foundation that need to be caulked, or air gaps that need to be sealed to keep pests out. Don’t forget to cover any vents with a metal mesh to deter pests.

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Winterizing your restaurant is imperative in any year, but 2020 presents unique challenges that can be overcome with proactive preparation for the winter season. 

From restaurant equipment maintenance to redesigning your outdoor space to better serve diners, there are a multitude of actions you can take to guard against potential pitfalls caused by low temperatures. Follow the winterization tips above to set your restaurant up for success during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Preparing your restaurant equipment for winter is just one thing a preventative maintenance plan can help you with. Let us take the pain out of managing restaurant equipment repair for you.

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