Under the dome: Could outdoor dining pods offer a new future for patios?

Various restaurants are exploring dining pods as an option during COVID-19 but their viability is still a point of contention.

By Tom Nightingale

In a world in which restaurant operators are still trying to work out how to pivot their outdoor dining offerings, one potential solution has become a hot topic of discussion in recent weeks. Outdoor dining pods have been introduced in some U.S. cities like Chicago and New York and now Canadian restaurateurs are starting to take up the mantle.

For Adam Panov, a Toronto-based events producer who has set up a company called SnowPods that supplies a version of these products for the foodservice industry, their appeal is obvious.

“These types of domes are meant to be utilized throughout the winter and keep people warm and comfortable – basically, to mimic as closely as possible the experience of dining indoors,” he tells RestoBiz. “If it’s a way to prevent thousands of jobs and businesses being lost across the country, I think it’s something we all need to give a very serious close look.”

No place like dome

So what exactly are patio dining pods and what do they entail? The concept has been around for a few years before COVID-19, although the pandemic and the end of summer weather in Canada has seen the framing of them shift from novelty paid experience to potentially sweeping solution. Places like Proof Bar at Intercontinental Yorkville in Toronto had introduced the experience back in the winter of 2018-19, touting it as a “winter oasis” for people who still want to dine outdoors during the frigid temperatures of February in southern Ontario.

Panov says he got his inspiration from Proof but that, as opposed to the “unique experience” marketing of the bar’s initiative, he sees it as something that is becoming almost a necessity in the COVID-19 world. “About a month ago, I got to thinking about how detrimental this upcoming winter is going to be for the hospitality industry. Those restaurants who can’t survive on takeout will need to come up with a creative way to extend their winter patios. The only way to keep people warm and isolate social bubbles to their very own structure is with these types of domes or structures.”

SnowPods can seat up to six people at a table and aims to recreate the indoor dining experience on patios without exposing patrons to the winter elements or, more pertinently, posing too much of a risk in terms of health and safety and infection control. The dining pods are manufactured in the U.S. from PVC plastic tarps and tubes and stand about 2.1 metres high, offering ample room to stand up from a table in the centre. They’re wide enough to fit a table seating up to six people and, according to the website, are designed to withstand temperatures as low as -20 C, with 70 pounds of snow and wind gusts of 60 km/h.

They are also equipped with ventilation through a zip-up door, retractable windows at the rear, and a window on the roof. Panov explains the general principle would be to keep them closed and snug during dining, and then air them out during table changeovers while his staff sanitize and clean the interior. SnowPods would provide Health Canada-approved disinfectants to eradicate viral particles potentially left on dining surfaces.

Solving the heater problem?

Another advantage, as Panov posits, could be in heating. It’s been established by this point that finding the kind of industrial heaters generally needed to provide warmth on winter patios has become akin to finding a needle in a haystack for many operators.

Panov says SnowPods is currently looking to partner with an unnamed heating company to offer heaters to go with the pods. For now, though, restaurants would be responsible for supplying their own indoor electrical space heaters. But, in domes like those offered by SnowPods, the idea is that a simple UL-coded space heater, the kind you can generally grab at a local home hardware store, would do the trick.

“These types of heaters are far more accessible than your industrial-sized outdoor patio heaters right now,” he says, adding that in some venues, outdoor industrial heaters are not always totally effective anyway due to how open and windy a lot of patios tend to be. “That’s the beauty of this set-up – you only need to heat up a small space containing up to six people.”

Health concerns

There has been red tape and concern over the idea, though, as operators, municipalities, and health authorities take time to align their approaches with adequate precautions. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has given them his blessing and they were approved by his health table, but it’s not that simple in this new age of caution and consideration.

Progress has been stymied by the unprecedented need for due diligence on the health and safety front. Part of the problem, at least as Panov sees it, is the lack of clarity; Toronto City officials have said that enclosed pods or bubbles are considered indoor dining and not allowed amid the ban on indoor dining, while Ottawa Public Health says that two of the four sides need to be open for them to be viable. Meanwhile, a pizzeria near Windsor, Ont. had its own domes shut down by public health officials who said they were not in line with their outdoor dining rules.

Though he has sent a letter to Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer in recent days to plead what he calls “the strong case of dining domes,” Panov stresses that he is “totally in support” of health officials taking a cautious approach. He notes that, as with anything in life during 2020, much of the onus would be on patrons to be sensible. It goes without saying that a group of six dining in an enclosed pod should all be from the same social circle and should exercise all the due caution they take in their day-to-day lives, whether it’s going to a supermarket, dining out, or working in an office.

“People must act responsibly when utilizing dining domes, only exposing themselves to people who are already in the social bubbles, who they would have exposed themselves to regardless,” he says. The big problem, he acknowledges, is how to enforce that, and that’s an issue that has plagued businesses and governments for the last eight months.

The jury’s still out

SnowPods is far from the only offering in this field right now. Even aside from the early U.S. adoption, in Ontario, some restaurants have made moves. The Village Biergarten in St. Jacobs in Waterloo Region has installed multiple domes with an eight-person capacity on their outdoor patio that can be reserved for free for 1 hour and 45 minutes. But whether they have a mainstream future as an approved option remains to be seen.

Panov remains hopeful though, and brings it all back to the future of the foodservice industry on the whole. ”The hospitality industry is dying off more than it needs to,” he stresses. “I wanted to come up with something that could meaningfully help restaurants and local dining, and our goal is to find a compromise between the risk of virus transmission and keeping restaurants and businesses open. I’m just happy we’ve been able to bring it to the forefront.”