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    Latest Restaurant Innovation: Outdoor Dining During Winter 2020

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    "Winter Dining Challenge" Winners

    Last month, we mentioned that the city of Chicago was sponsoring a "Winter Dining Challenge" to crowdsource ideas for outdoor dining solutions that may help struggling restaurants stay in business during the colder months. Three winners were announced, each earning $5000 and the opportunity to prototype their designs to see if they can work. Let's check out each of the three winning designs.

    latest restaurant innovation for winter 2020 cozy cabins

    Cozy Cabins was the winning concept designed by ASD | SKY, a creative design firm. Their concept for modular dining "cabins" that can potentially fit three to a single parking space basically acts as a private room for restaurant patrons. It's stylish, comfortable, and can definitely withstand the elements during winter.

    However, it also seems like the most expensive option. Depending on the materials used (the entry calls for "wood, corrugated metal, polycarbonate plastic"), building and maintaining these cabins during the winter months will be a challenge for stores with tight budgets. The plan also calls for radiant heating floors, overhead lighting, and transparent windows.

    And if you're wondering "isn't the point of outdoor dining to be in open air to prevent COVID-19 spread?", this concept addresses that issue with vents near the ceiling... which is strange since if that's all it takes to stay safe, then restaurants can just install HVAC systems inside their current indoor space. Or carve out more air vents. That may cost money, but we're not sure if this solution would be any less expensive. It just seems like, well, more indoor seating. It may even be cheaper to build plexiglass partitions indoors with their own vent systems, basically mimicking these cabins inside the space a restaurant would already have.

    latest restaurant innovation from chicago winter dining challenge heated tables

    Heated Tables, by Ellie Henderson, is a take on a Japanese Kotatsu which is, you guessed it, a heated table. In essence, special heaters are bolted to the underside of a table, then the entire table is draped with a heavy blanket to retain the heat. Guests would stay mostly warm by putting their lower half under the blanket as they ate outdoors.

    As popular as they are in Japan, they are mostly used indoors for good reason. Not only do they need to be plugged in, but they only warm the lower half of the body. Also, for best results, guests would have to sit on pillows or cushions on the floor as chairs may not be suitable to retain heat, even if the blankets were long enough to drape to the floor.

    On the bright side, it's probably the most affordable solution. Kotatsu heaters can be bolted to nearly any existing table, and it's a low-cost way to keep guests mostly warm during the colder months, especially if there are a few standing heaters around the space as well. The only other concern is all these heating elements being a possible fire or burn hazard that might not fly with restaurant management, or city safety inspectors.

    latest restaurant innovation from chicago winter dining challenge block party

    Block Party, submitted by Neil Reindel, sort of straddles between the two previous ideas. These blocks are open-air modular seating squares that can accommodate two people, and more can be pushed together for larger parties. There are overhead lights, and radiant heating mesh built into the seats. The materials also seem less expensive than the previous modular device.

    To us, this seems like the best solution. It takes the modular, shielded elements of the first idea and decreases cost while increasing actual air circulation. Sure, during a particularly windy day, they might not be suitable to use, but no outdoor solution that requires open-air seating will be. At least this idea seems more affordable for restaurants trying to salvage just a few more seating opportunities in a strange, COVID winter.

    Which is your favorite concept? We're excited to see what happens as Chicago prototypes each of these and hopefully bring them to a restaurant near you.

    In Other News...


    33% of SMBs are Struggling to Hire

    Despite the unemployment rate hovering around 8%, a recent report from the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) showed that 33% of SMBs have at least one unfilled position; and in general, job openings have increased three points since their previous report. Why are so many companies struggling to hire employees during this time? There are a few reasons.

    why restaurants are still hiring aggressively despite covid-19

    Unemployed, But Not Looking

    One factor is that many people considered "unemployed" are not really looking for work due to various reason. Some are related to health, as many are afraid to expose themselves to the ongoing pandemic. Another is that they are technically furloughed, so many are expecting to be able to return to their old job, effectively preventing them from finding a new one. And disturbingly, 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting or leaving the workforce during this time, many for familial reasons.

    All this means that while unemployment is high, there are significant barriers that make hiring difficult for many small and medium sized businesses.

    Skilled Labor is an Ongoing Issue

    In February, America was seeing historically low unemployment and the demand for skilled workers was especially high. The pandemic changed many things, but it seems like this demand hasn't dipped much at all. In short, most skilled workers have remained employed, and businesses can't find enough of them to hire even now.

    According to the NFIB report, "construction job growth continues to be strong but owners in the sector are having a particularly hard time finding skilled employees." Likewise, the tech industry is struggling to hire skilled programmers. The wave of unemployment hit skill-levels unequally, and the SMBs in need of experienced employees are finding hiring them just as difficult as it was pre-pandemic.

    Increased Enterprise Competition

    Nearly every week, we're seeing announcements of mass hirings by giant brands like Amazon or Walmart. In some ways, this economic downturn has been a boon to these enterprise-level companies who have deep pockets and the infrastructure to scoop up tens of thousands of employees at a time, with fairly competitive salaries and benefits. Often, SMBs can't match what they're paying, but more often, they can't match their hiring efficiency.

    When Amazon can hire thousands of applicants within days using a completely automated process, that puts SMBs at a major disadvantage in sourcing employees. This is why more SMBs are using automated hiring solutions themselves in order to compete with the big brands, especially during the seasonal uptick we're starting to see now.

    Hiring, even during high unemployment, is a tricky endeavor for many businesses. Make sure you understand the reasons why filling positions are difficult so you can address them as you plan out your hiring funnel and process.

    Need help hiring the right people? Workstream can help. Our platform gets you 4x the number of qualified applicants and reduces your time-to-hire by 70%.

    Click here to schedule a demo.

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    Robert Woo

    Robert Woo is a freelance content creator for various companies from startup to enterprise-level. When not writing SEO-friendly articles, he writes and performs comedy, plays guitar, and champions the Oxford comma.

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