Outdoor Dining Bubbles: The Pros, Cons, and Costs

A restaurant provides large, see-through geodesic domes for outdoor dining.

With COVID-19 concerns creating restrictions on indoor dining, restaurateurs have been focused on keeping their restaurants open and keeping customers coming to their establishments. Outdoor dining has been one of the most popular ways for restaurants to continue serving customers throughout the pandemic. And with the support of Fáilte Ireland’s €17 million Outdoor Dining Enhancement Scheme, restaurants across the country have been able to develop their outdoor offering.

As part of the shift to outdoor dining, many restaurant owners have taken an interest in outdoor dining bubbles. Outdoor dining bubbles, also known as bubble pods or dining domes, offer restaurants a way to serve customers in private, enclosed spaces outside their restaurant walls. These spaces are usually set up anywhere outside an establishment, from pavements to parking spaces.

While these eye-catching structures may help some restaurants attract customers, and keep them warm in the colder months, they come with certain risks. Before investing in outdoor bubbles for your establishment, here are the pros, cons, and other considerations to know before building your own bubbles.

Types of outdoor dining bubbles

Enclosed outdoor structures provide a unique experience for diners and can be an attention-grabbing marketing tactic for attracting customers in the colder months. They also provide restaurants an alternative to building pavilion-like structures to house patrons for outdoor dining.

Types of dining bubbles include:

  • Clear plastic zip-up tents or marquees that can house tables for up to six diners at once.
  • Versatile stretch tents that can cover several socially-distanced tables and provide shelter for large outdoor areas.
  • Large, see-through geodesic domes that also house tables for up to six diners at once.
  • Tipis or yurts made of wood and covered with fabric, come in various sizes (some of which are large enough to house multiple tables).
  • If you’re looking to utilise space, individual dining pods with polycarbonate roofs and dividers are small enough to fit two pods within a parking space.

The benefits of outdoor dining bubbles

Dining bubbles enable restaurants to continue serving customers outside all year, even in adverse conditions like rain or snow. This helps business owners maintain in-person dining options, even when dining indoors is restricted to a limited capacity or not allowed at all.

The most popular dining bubbles and domes have vents at the top for airflow, but are otherwise designed to keep customers warm. Depending on bubble type, some restaurant owners can also put space heaters inside their bubbles to further help customers stay warm in colder temperatures.

Helping customers keep their distance from each other is another benefit. Bubbles help limit contact between different parties while keeping table numbers down to six diners or less. If the bubble is especially large, all members of a party can even sit at safe social distances from one another inside the enclosure.

The challenges of outdoor dining bubbles

No matter how well-executed a dining-bubble concept is, it’s not wise for any restaurateur to view them as a lifeline for the coming months. There are still many additional measures you’ll need to have in place to ensure that bubble dining is safe for all.

Despite how comfortable the in-bubble conditions may be in terms of temperature, not all customers will be comfortable dining inside them during a pandemic.

Generally, bubbles pose the same COVID-19 risks as indoor dining. There’s not the same level of air exchange in a dining bubble as there is in an open-air experience, with a potentially high risk of transmission if you occupy the same bubble as someone with COVID-19.

And because the droplets that people produce when talking, breathing and eating can easily build up inside a bubble, enhanced cleaning measures are required. Staff must enter and sanitize a bubble in between parties. This not only limits how many parties can be seated and served in a given night, but also creates risk for the employees tasked with cleaning the enclosures.

There’s a reputational risk at play for the restaurant, as well, in the event that COVID-19 transmission takes place at the establishment or if the bubbles are poorly received by the local community.

Breaking down the cost

Individual dining pods, depending on size, currently cost around €700 for a 1.8 by 2.1 metre enclosure . Larger, upscale geodesic domes that seat up to 8 people can run upward of €3,670 each, while smaller domes with a four-person capacity tend to be around €2,737 each.

The more customized the structures, the higher the price. Those prices don’t reflect the added and ongoing costs associated with setting up and maintaining the pods, either. These include the expenses for permits, enhanced cleaning, nightly set-up and tear-down, heating, insurance, furniture and lighting for inside as well as outside the pods.

Researching and applying for permits, and understanding what is allowed by location, also requires significant time investment. Insurance can also be a significant expense; obtaining an outdoor seating permit in Dublin, for example, requires the restaurant to set up Public Liability Insurance for €6.5 million to indemnify Dublin City Council. The peculiarities of the pods also create costs that are hard to assess in advance of utilizing them on-site.

Heating is one such peculiarity. In some locations, only electrical space heaters are allowed; in others, you can opt for electric or gas heating (and there are separate, specific requirements for permitting depending on which utilities you use). If you opt to heat the pods at all, you may spend quite a lot on heat as it will be expended through the required ventilation systems. They also must be weighted or anchored to the ground, be made of certified fire-resistant material, and any heating equipment needs to meet specific regulations.

There’s also the potential lost revenue of turning fewer tables each night as the bubbles absorb time and effort from staff, as well as the expense of any PPE and specialised serving utensils designed to get food or drinks to customers safely. Food typically cannot be prepared inside an enclosed outdoor dining structure, so the equipment necessary to keep food hot may be an additional unexpected expense.

An uncertain outdoor dining solution

Since it’s hard to estimate the costs upfront, restaurateurs investing in dining bubbles have to be comfortable with uncertainty.

And as great as customers may find dining bubbles to be, they still pose high risks of COVID-19 transmission among diners in the same bubble. Leaving the vents open makes them safer than a fully zipped tent, but may make them less comfortable for customers in the cold months of the year.

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