Optimize Your Winter Restaurant Operations

Learn how to keep your customers and staff safe and your kitchen busy this winter by optimizing your restaurant operations.

17 min read

Last year, operators reimagined their winter restaurant operations so they could accommodate guests safely through the cold weather with limited indoor dining. Even though vaccines are readily available this year, customer and staff health remains paramount. Follow these tips to ensure your restaurant is set up to provide an enjoyable, convenient, and safe dining experience.

While you read, follow along with our downloadable Winter Restaurant Checklist, filled with actionable tips to help prepare your restaurant for winter.

Create a plan that prioritizes safety for guests and staff

Having a well-devised strategy to ensure the safety of guests and staff is of utmost importance this winter. From staying up-to-date with the latest health mandates to creating a clean, ventilated dining environment, here are a few things to keep in mind as temperatures drop. 

Have a vaccine protocol ready

New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco are just a few cities that have started to require people to show proof they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to dine indoors at restaurants and bars. In areas where it isn't mandated, some restaurants have implemented their own vaccine policies. Since providing vaccination proof isn't mandatory everywhere yet, having a protocol in place for your restaurant — and ensuring guests and employees are aware of it — will reduce questions during daily shifts. If your business or local laws do require vaccines, consider offering outdoor dining well into the winter months to accommodate all customers.   

Adopt (or modify) a reservation policy

Whether or not indoor dining is back to full capacity in your area, take steps to be able to welcome as many guests as possible this winter, while avoiding overcrowding in your entrance. Refine your reservation policy to ensure high cover counts, fast table turns, and smooth operations for your front- and back-of-house teams.

Booking tools like Resy and OpenTable are great resources for developing a new reservation policy or modifying an existing one to allow diners to choose between indoor and outdoor seating, set time limits per seating, and of course highlight enticing menu photos to encourage bookings. As you set your reservation system up, be sure to leave enough time between seatings to properly sanitize tables. 

Prepare indoor and outdoor dining for the cold

During COVID-19, some areas became enamored with outdoor dining, making long-term plans for the streetside dining rooms. A survey of city mayors found that of the 92% who created new outdoor dining space amid the pandemic, 34% planned to make the outdoor structures permanent. In colder months, these alfresco spaces require more equipment — such as heaters, covers, and lamps — to keep guests warm and dry.

Restaurants can also focus on creating a warm and cozy dining room this year. While there are fewer mandated indoor capacity limits, it's a good idea to go ahead and schedule an HVAC inspection to make sure your heating and ventilation are in working order to prevent the spread of airborne illness.

Provide masks and hand sanitizer 

Many cities and states no longer require masks to be worn indoors, but be sure to keep extra masks and hand sanitizer available for guests who want to use them. You can also make it clear that you're following strict table sanitizing protocol by establishing a signage system so staff and diners know which tables are ready and which need to be cleaned. Your customers will appreciate the extra effort — and once they see you're continuing to prioritize safety, they'll feel even more comfortable coming back. 

Optimize the flow of diners, pickup customers, and Dashers 

During the colder winter months, customers may feel less compelled to venture out to a restaurant, especially amid snow, ice, or freezing temperatures. This is where you can benefit from an uptick in delivery and takeout orders. To avoid overcrowding your entrance with diners, pickup customers, and Dashers, here are tips to optimize traffic in your restaurant and keep all guests and staff safe. 

  • Create a separate section for pickup orders. Creating a dedicated area for pickup and delivery orders can help reduce crowds in your restaurant. If possible, designate a separate entrance, side window, or counter space to quickly hand off pickup and delivery orders and optimize the Dasher pickup experience. Use signage to direct customers and Dashers to the appropriate area to avoid overcrowding. 

  • Establish special parking for curbside pick up. Setting aside 2-3 parking spaces specifically for curbside pickup allows customers to quickly get their orders without having to circle the block. To prevent dine-in customers from using these spots, clearly paint curbside markings on the ground or set up freestanding signs. 

Be mindful of supply chain shortages

In addition to labor shortages, restaurants are facing major disruptions in their supply chains. An increase in customer demand has left restaurants across the country scrambling to replenish their inventories, find new vendors, and track down ingredients. Since many shipments are either delayed or unavailable, operators have learned to be flexible when it comes to managing these disruptions. 

With supply chain issues likely to persist for the foreseeable future, it's important to monitor your menu profitability so you can make informed decisions about whether to raise prices, launch promotions, or swap out dishes for simpler alternatives. Be sure to maintain ongoing communication with your staff and customers in order to manage expectations. 

Discover opportunities for increased revenue

Many restaurant operators turned to delivery-focused restaurant concepts to drive incremental sales during the pandemic. Here are a few low-investment, high-margin business strategies to expand your geographic footprint: 

  • Rent space in a virtual kitchen. Virtual kitchens (also known as ghost kitchens) allow restaurants to rent space to prepare delivery or pickup orders in a multi-operator commercial kitchen. This allows restaurants to reach new customers and expand their delivery radius without the cost of opening a new brick-and-mortar location. 

  • Use your kitchen to launch a virtual brand. A virtual restaurant brand is a delivery-focused concept that allows restaurants to launch an additional restaurant using their existing kitchen and staff. Choose a cuisine that aligns with your current focus — for example, if you're a BBQ restaurant, launch a chicken wings virtual brand.  

  • Ship items nationwide. DoorDash recently announced Nationwide Shipping, allowing restaurants to ship their beloved items across the United States. Choose the shipping model that best fits your needs, then enjoy a high-margin revenue stream and increased brand visibility — supported by DoorDash's streamlined shipping operations.

  • License your brand. Restaurants can also license their brand to have DoorDash operate a delivery-focused concept in one of our kitchens. You provide the brand and menu, and DoorDash handles the rest in exchange for a percentage of sales — including hiring staff, buying ingredients, preparing dishes, operating the kitchen, and facilitating deliveries.

Develop a winter marketing strategy 

Winter tends to be a time for slower restaurant sales, but there are many ways your restaurant can engage with customers and make sure they get excited about your seasonal offerings. 

Create a seasonal winter menu

As it gets colder, your guests will crave hearty comfort food and spiced cocktails like hot toddies and mulled wine. Changing your menu with the season invites an escape from the cold, ensures fresh ingredients, and makes your menu feel more exciting for new and repeat guests alike. 

Here's how Grace Figueroa, Managing Partner and Owner at Happy Bowls NYC, approaches their winter menu:

"At Happy Bowls, we strive to provide the most tasty and delicious bowls year-round. We're known for our acai and pitaya bowls, so during the colder winter days we like to highlight our hot food options. Thus, we create specials to promote options such as poke bowls, oatmeals, toasts, and our unique soups."

Below are a few ways to optimize your seasonal menu:

  • Highlight new dishes on social media. As you add more seasonal dishes to your menu — whether it's a melty mac and cheese or a velvety butternut squash soup, let guests know they can get their comforting cold-weather fix by sharing attractive photos on social media and on your delivery menu.

  • Add alcohol to your delivery menu. Before the pandemic, to-go alcohol wasn't available everywhere, but it's now permitted in 38 states. Customers and restaurants embraced delivery cocktails and the convenience of ordering a pasta dinner with a nice bottle of Chianti from the same place. Learn the regulations in your area and maximize your profit margins by offering wine, beer, and cocktails to-go as permitted. 

  • Offer meal kits for guests to cook at home. Meal kits grew in popularity during the height of the pandemic, and that isn't slowing down. In fact, the meal kit industry is expected to be worth $11.6 billion by 2022. Offer pre-packaged boxes with prepped ingredients and recipes customers can use to recreate one of your restaurant's signature dishes or desserts in their own kitchen. 

Keep your website updated

Since 77% of diners visit a restaurant's website before they dine in or order out, it's important to maintain a streamlined, easy-to-read site with all necessary information. Spend a few minutes every week to ensure your website is up-to-date with the most current menus, hours, reservations, online ordering, and safety guidelines. This can help cut down on phone calls and web inquiries, as well as give customers peace of mind as they plan their visit.

Connect with guests on social media

Your restaurant's social media channels provide an opportunity to connect with guests directly by reposting photos, replying to comments, announcing menu specials, or giving a behind-the-scenes glimpse of your team. By maintaining an active social presence, your restaurant stays top of mind for guests when they go to make reservations, and can catch the eye of diners who haven't been in before. Plus, there are countless food holidays you can celebrate on Instagram. 

Learn other tips on how to best leverage your restaurant's social presence in the Ultimate Guide to Restaurant Social Media Marketing

Create or update your email marketing strategy

Email marketing is a powerful tool that allows you to deepen relationships with existing customers by regularly staying in touch. Let your loyal fans know about your special Thanksgiving menu or give subscribers first access to pre-ordering pies for Christmas. Discover more tips to create a winning email marketing strategy

Reply to reviews

When guests take the time to leave a review, make sure to reply in a timely manner to thank the guest for their positive feedback or to provide a resolution to constructive criticism. Whether the review is good or bad, replies can be beneficial because they show other guests that you value all customer feedback. In the Merchant Portal, DoorDash partners can reply to reviews directly with both pre-written templates and personalized responses. 

Reach more customers with ads and promotions 

Ads and promotions can give your restaurant an extra boost to reach new customers and drive sales. DoorDash partners get access to marketing tools like Sponsored Listings, which place your business at the top of relevant DoorDash search results, as well as Promotions to entice customers with free delivery and discounts. On average, businesses that use Promotions see up to a 20% increase in DoorDash sales.

Maximize your team effectiveness 

Restaurant work is notoriously stressful, even without a pandemic, so maintaining employee wellness is key to operating a successful business in all seasons — and especially during the current labor shortage. Prioritize employee mental health and create an environment that makes all team members excited and motivated to come to work each day. 

Invest in employee wellness 

Between providing a stellar customer experience, multi-tasking with ease, and gearing up for a busy holiday season, your staff is the backbone of your restaurant's success. Now's the time to make plans to ensure your team feels safe and supported. This can include providing employees with daily check-ins, mental health days, team bonding, and family meals. If you show your team the same hospitality you show your guests, they'll feel more valued and appreciated. 

Evaluate employee hours and holiday staffing

Seasonal weather can have a big impact on your operations, particularly when it comes to staffing needs. While you may be hosting a buy-out holiday party one night, the next night may only have a few covers on the books because of an impending storm. Early in the season, consider changing your employee shifts or implement an on-call system to make sure you're always covered — and your employees aren't coming in for no reason. 

Be sure to let your employees know ahead of time if your operation schedule will change for winter so they can prepare accordingly. Similarly, if you need to hire more seasonal help, begin that hiring process as soon as you can so everyone can be trained and on the floor as soon as possible. This includes determining what staff you need, hiring, training, and establishing availability. 

When it comes to hiring, November to January is a notoriously difficult period for restaurant owners and managers. With the staffing crunch, operators are finding it difficult to fill necessary spots on their staff. But many operators can benefit from the availability of students on breaks looking to make extra income — the flexible schedules and potential to return during summer months is often enticing for a younger workforce. 

Start preparing for winter now

With the winter months ahead of us, there's no better time to start prepping your restaurant for the cold and strategize seasonal business operations. Partner with DoorDash to benefit from extra orders and increased revenue, even as temperatures dip.

Already a DoorDash partner? Get the winter equipment and supplies you need at a special discount in the DoorDash brand store.


Jen Brown

Jen Brown


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