— By Bob Lester —
Tips to ensure outdoor spaces are structurally safe for al fresco dining and more.
Enjoying a delicious meal in the sunshine and warm breeze is one of the most pleasant experiences to come out of the pandemic. Dining patrons are requesting to skip the indoor spaces in lieu of fresh air — initially due to COVID-19 safety — but research is showing this trend may continue long past the pandemic. In spring 2021, only 26% of people say they feel comfortable dining indoors, and a majority of people say they expect outdoor dining to be one of the aspects of a pandemic world that sticks around.
To keep up with consumer trends and ensure the safety of their customers, facility operators need to ensure their parking lots and sidewalks are properly audited annually. Here are the steps to take — and items to keep in mind — as you prepare your surfaces for the spring and summer outdoor dining seasons.
How a Warmer-Than-Normal Winter Impacts Your Lot
Although February 2021 was the coldest in 30 years, overall, the 2020-2021 winter weather was unseasonably warm, which was incredibly harsh on pavement and asphalt surfaces. Since temperatures fluctuated dramatically — warm during the day and then freezing at night — facility operators are noticing more cracks, potholes and damage to their parking lots than in typical years.
Now that many hospitality businesses are considering refurbishing spaces like parking lots to accommodate an increase in outdoor dining demand, safety and appearance need to be prioritized.
What to Look for When Auditing Your Lot
For restaurants and dining facilities beginning the maintenance process, the first step should be auditing and recording the status of their parking lots and pavement. If you notice that you’ll need a professional opinion, reach out now, as many contractors’ schedules will begin to get booked up as they help other restaurants prep their spaces for the season.
Begin with self-auditing your potential outdoor dining spaces — including walkways for patrons, the actual dining spaces and the walkways for dining staff into the restaurant — to ensure they are up to code. Gather the quantitative level of damage along with the severity of damage to give contractors a precise view of what the project will entail.
Record any signs of potholes or cracks that have surfaced over the winter season and avoid trying to fix them yourself. Self-auditing and the ability to provide contractors with this level of detail will ensure you receive the most accurate quotes. Be sure to be up front with the contractor about your budget so you can have a frank discussion about priorities and what work will fit within it. This will save both you and the contractor time by avoiding discussing work that is beyond your budget at this time.
If budget is a concern, small businesses may be able to use PPP dollars to revitalize a parking lot or sidewalk that will be used as a dining space — further helping grow your business and make up for the revenue lost throughout the pandemic. Auditing the space and ultimately repairing your parking lot do not need to be extremely expensive. Experienced contractors can work within your business’s budget and provide alternatives if budget constraints come up.
Our company has worked with many property owners who have revised the scope of the work they planned due to budgetary concerns over the last year, and any qualified contractor should be able to do the same. For one project initially scoped at $1 million, our team learned after we were awarded the project that it had dropped to $700,000. We quickly switched into problem-solving mode and decided that instead of removing the parking lot and replacing it, we would take a maintenance approach and repair only what was necessary, while also meeting their goals. We provided the client multiple options, and they appreciated our team’s expert approach and flexibility.
Understand How to Stay Compliant
Ensuring that your outdoor dining facility is up to code with city requirements will help your business avoid costly fines and fees while also keeping patrons safe. To start, connect with your city officials to familiarize yourself with local requirements, and then identify a contractor who can help you address ADA codes. Also consider that you may need to submit a form for an outdoor dining permit. Review your city’s restrictions regarding social distancing, square footage, walking lanes and capacity limits to stay compliant throughout the season.
Many restaurant owners do not initially consider that establishing an outdoor dining facility can change the flow of vehicle traffic. Find areas to add signage to increase safety and accessibility for your customers. Signage should direct drivers where to park, where to slow down and where to yield to pedestrians.
We may have never imagined dining on a parking lot would be one of the best ways to bring diners back into restaurants after the pandemic, but it’s proving to be successful — and requested. Keeping these safety recommendations top of mind will ensure a booming outdoor dining season for restaurants across the country.
— Bob Lester is president and CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based Dura-Seal, a sealcoating, asphalt and concrete services company. He has worked in the paving industry for over 20 years, leading two buyouts, an acquisition and the sale of an equipment manufacturing company at Dura-Seal.