Creating Magic on your Winter Patio
Creating Magic on your Winter Patio
“Hospitality is a concept and an obligation… based on generosity, a warm reception, special care for a guest, good intentions and the willingness to help others.” Prof. Peter Jones - Dean of the eHotelier Academy
The greatest challenge ever to face the global Food Service and Hospitality Industry is the COVID pandemic. Whether a corner tavern or a five-star hotel, these last 20 months have affected us all; owners, chefs, servers and guests alike.
Throughout this difficult time, restauranteurs have faced the headwinds and pivoted to meet the ever-changing realities of our brave new world. Including changes such as new no-touch digital menus, take-out and home-delivery capabilities, wine and beer retail and employee profit-sharing incentives, it is outdoor dining that continues to provide the most reliable lifeline to operators.
The Outdoor Dining Experience
It’s no secret that the popularity of outdoor or ‘al fresco’ dining has grown steadily over the last decade. There has been a general cultural shift towards wellness, health, or what the Finnish people call ‘sisu’ living. The trend is unmistakable.
The onset of the COVID pandemic dramatically accelerated this phenomenon, especially given general health and safety concerns compounded by the often-stringent restrictions on indoor dining. Being outdoors is perceived to be ‘safer’ and ergo, customers flock to outdoor patios to satiate their public dining needs.
What the Research Tells Us
In a 2021 Open Tables/James Beard Foundation Quarterly Diner Insights Survey, 74% felt more comfortable outdoors in terms of COVID transmission risk. Even more telling was that a whopping 82% of customers want restaurants to increase their outdoor seating.
Savvy restauranteurs quickly shifted focus from the indoor dining experience to the outdoor, actively lobbying local politicians to lift restrictions on sidewalk dining and exploring any and all opportunities to bring more of their business outside and to keep it there!
Case in point, Patrick Lee of Grafton Group Hospitality. Otherwise known as ‘the king of patio dining’, Patrick manages six properties around Harvard Square in Cambridge Mass. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, changeable weather and the colder seasons, Lee remarked that “our guests love to dine al fresco, so we are very aggressive in keeping our patios available”.
The Winter Patio
The elephant in the room is of course the annual onset of cold weather. As we move into our second full winter of the pandemic, restauranteurs are asking how they can create comfortable outdoor dining experiences for their customers.
The most common winter patio solution is area-tenting with hanging side-walls and the ubiquitous array of propane heaters to keep people warm. Other options include covered dining pods with space heaters, Buckminster Fuller globes, yurts and more. In a 2021 blog about Michigan craft brewery winter patios, Amy Sherman cites creative craft brewery solutions to the cold-weather challenge. One of the most fun is the rustic fire pit. No surprise there.
Gathering around an open fire is one of the earliest communal activities practiced by prehistoric humans. The experience of a flickering wood fire connects us to the essence of our humanity; and it is truly a feast for the senses; the enchanting red glow of flame and ember, the crackling sounds of wood burning, the rejuvenating warmth of the fire, the sweet, intoxicating smell of the wood smoke and the complex tastes of the food prepared on an open flame. Everybody loves a wood fire.
The best things about the rustic fire pit are their low cost, ease of installation and the sheer fun of hanging out with a beer by a wood-fire. But, as anyone who’s ever been camping knows, beyond the most basic grilling fare, cooking anything elaborate on a fire pit is truly a pit-master’s challenge. And when it comes to actually enjoying your meal, it usually happens on your lap; not what one would call a ‘civilized’ dining experience. But help is at hand. You can now transform your rustic “fire pit” into a magical grilling and dining centrepiece with a new product, a Kota Grill.
Now available in Canada and the US, the Kota Grill is imported from arctic Finland. These unique fireplace/grills are hexagonal in shape with dining tables attached to each of the six sides. Standing table high and crowned with a dramatic hood to direct smoke up and away, Kota Grills are both a focal point and dining-centre whose main feature is a cozy, crackling wood fire. Not only does it provide warmth and a place to cook and dine, the Kota Grill makes being outside a magical and memorable event.
The Kota Grill on a Restaurant Patio
Award-winning hospitality leader, Steam Whistle Brewing, installed a Kota Grill in their landmark Toronto location in 2020. They pioneered this new idea and have figured out how to make it work for them profitably. After clearing the concept with the local municipality for approval, they have implemented specific standards and procedures that make it work as originally conceived.
Rather than simply offering up a wood-fire table as a special area to gather and imbibe, Steam Whistle has marketed the Kota Grill as a special ‘Fireside Dining Experience’, offering a private space including a prix-fixe multi-course menu curated and grilled at the table by the chef.
Playing with Fire
Guests also have an opportunity to ‘play with fire’ safely, grilling small items like s’mores, reconnecting them to the nostalgic memories of camping with friends and family. The simple combination of people gathering around a real wood fire plus cooking and eating together with friends is the entertainment.
In their business model, Steam Whistle caters these events as ‘family style’ thus increasing guest interaction and lowering food costs!
Taking it up a notch, Steam Whistle constructed a wooden Kota Grill Dining Pod with built-in benches for their Kota Grill. The enclosure helps contain the warmth and enhance the sense of intimacy for guests. Blankets are available so rustic comfort is ensured.
Biergarten Experience Manager Josh Hillinger tells us that the bookings for the Fireside Dining Experience continue to increase as the word gets out how ‘cool’ it is.
Steam Whistle Dining Pod
There are several more elaborate ways the Kota Grill can be used to enhance your patio guest experience all year round.
Kota Gazebo Grill
Another possibility is to erect a Kota Gazebo Grill on your patio or hotel property. A gazebo gives good protection from the elements and can be a striking event space for small private groups. Add bench seating or some Muskoka chairs with mood lighting and decor to create that magical setting for your special events. The possibilities are endless.
The Kota Grill Cabin is the most elaborate incarnation of the fireside dining experience.
Originally from northern Scandinavia, this cozy hexagonal hut with a Kota Grill inside is very much loved in Europe, Russia and the UK. Like the sauna - also an export from Finland - the Kota Grill Cabins are used both in residential as well as hotel and restaurant settings.
Kota Hut at Hotel Zum Zollhaus, Germany
Managers of European hotels, spas, 'glamping' grounds, Air B&B's and resorts feature Kota Grill Cabins on their properties for special guest experiences. They are often installed as permanent structures. But, because these cabins are modular, they can be assembled and disassembled very easily. For example, hotels in Germany, like the “Residenz Hotel Zum Zollhaus” install Kota Grill Cabins in their beer gardens for the winter, enabling unique guest experiences and creating new sources of revenue at the same time. Others like the Vista Resort Hotel in Switzerland or Les Chantelmines Hotel and Restaurant in Alsace have created full programs around their permanently-installed Kota Grill Cabins.
The key to the Kota Grill is a cozy fire and the magic it creates. Sitting around a wood fire is hardly new, but we in North America are new to the Kota Grill & Hut concept, lifestyle and experience. In the UK alone, over 1000 Kota Huts are installed per year around the country. If the trend in England and across Europe is any indication, it's merely a matter of time before it catches on here too!
As we move toward the third year of the pandemic, there are compelling reasons for leaders in food service and hospitality to embrace the Finnish Kota Grill tradition. Whether to enhance the winter patio, create magical guest experiences or to differentiate the property from the competition, the Kota Grill will show ‘a special care for our guests’ and elevate their experience to new levels of pleasure and enjoyment. This after all is at the heart of what we call ‘hospitality’.