Local businesses have seen changes in customer behavior since the start of the pandemic, as dining culture has moved more prominently outdoors.
“We’ve never before had people say, ‘Outside only,’” Monica Kessler, co-owner of Il Giorgione Pizzeria & Wine Bar, said.
Kessler said usually, when the weather turns nasty, outdoor diners are more than willing to move inside. But since the pandemic, customers are much less likely to move indoors.
She and her husband George co-own the restaurant, which is located on Devine Street and offers both indoor and patio dining. Kessler said for many people, the preference is still to eat al fresco, or outside.
Il Giorgione is not alone. Restaurants around Columbia are experiencing the same pattern.
Terry Davis is one of the co-owners of Thirsty Fellow Pizzeria and Pub, located on Gadsden Street. She said in an email interview that while she has not really seen any changes in customer behaviors due to the pandemic, “many customers do prefer to sit outside.”
Nationally, dining al fresco has become a topic of interest. While the science involving COVID-19 is constantly evolving, many scientists agree that dining outdoors is preferable to dining indoors. Businesses are not the only ones embracing the outdoors — the consumers are as well.
A recent study conducted by SevenRooms and YouGov looked at how consumers felt about dining out again. Of those who were currently interested in dining out, "42% are comfortable with outdoor seating," compared to 29% comfortable with "dining at venues that have indoor seating."
“I’ll eat inside, but I definitely feel more comfortable outside,” Kelley Winters, a local diner, said. “As long as the restaurant is following the guidelines, I'm okay with eating there.”
Josh Willoughby is the owner of Market on Main, "a gourmet kitchen, specialty market and bar," located on Main Street in Columbia.
“People are just really interested in being outside,” Willoughby said.
When Market on Main first opened toward the end of last year, Willoughby had plans to construct a large outdoor entertainment space that would include a 23 foot wide LED screen, beer wall and ample seating. But by the first large-scale shutdown of businesses in March, the outdoor area had yet to be completed.
By the time restaurants could reopen their outdoor dining in May, the construction of Market on Main’s outdoor space was complete. Willoughby said if they didn't have that outdoor area, he is "almost 100%" certain Market on Main would not be back in business at this point.
"The saving grace is that ... we do have the outside space," Willoughby said. “It’s definitely been a huge shift.”
Many restaurants around Columbia, such as Il Giorgione, Thirty Fellow and Market on Main, are implementing and following the new guidelines. Whether dining indoors or outdoors, customers can expect increased sanitization, mask wearing and more space in between tables.
However, there are still concerns about outdoor dining in the coming months.
The pandemic first arose towards the beginning of spring, leaving diners with warmer weather and sunny days. But as the seasons change, so does the weather.
Kessler said it is "hard to say" if diners will still be as willing to eat outside once the weather cools down, but they do seem to be more willing to withstand the weather than before the pandemic.
“For example, in July and August, they tolerated the heat much more than they normally would,” Kessler said. "In the past, when it was crazy hot, nobody would sit outside."
But this summer, Il Giorgione had people sit outside no matter how hot it was.
“So, I do feel that, once it starts to get cool, we’ll have the same effect," Kessler said. "We’ll have people who will tolerate a little bit more than they might normally otherwise tolerate."
Similarly, Davis said if it’s sunny outside, diners will probably still use the outside tables, and when it gets colder, Thirsty Fellow will have heaters on the deck.
Looking past this winter and past the end of the pandemic, many are wondering about the longevity of outdoor dining.
“I think the preference for outside dining will change once a vaccine is developed and widely distributed and life gets back to something like normal,” Davis said.