Creating a warm, toasty environment for your guests this winter could add gravy to your return, writes Claire Deutsher Burke
Although the type of heating you have is unlikely to impact a patron’s decision on where to dine, it can influence profit. First, heating is an expense, so choosing an effective yet efficient method will naturally improve your turnover. Second, by creating a comfortable, ambient environment, diners will be more tempted to linger longer and ultimately increase table spend.
“For our outside balcony tables where people tend to sit longer, their average spend is more, and this absorbs the cost of heating that area,” says Mark Strobel, restaurant manager at Tutto Bene at Southbank in Melbourne, a venue popular for its balcony space offering grand views of the city.
The type of heating in an existing eatery isn’t something that can be easily swapped over, yet that doesn’t mean restaurateurs have to simply accept enormous energy bills through the winter months. There are several measures that can be taken to improve the heating efficiency of their premises. Actions such as improving insulation, using retractable blinds, and zoning are all relatively cost-effective to implement, may have little or no impact on the aesthetic of the venue, and can significantly reduce the energy required to heat the space.
Any way you can improve insulation will boost the energy performance of your venue, so making sure your ceiling is well-insulated and double glazing windows is an effective way of reducing energy costs as it reduces heat transfer between the outside cold and the warmth inside. Adding curtains has a similar effect. “The best way to increase energy savings is to improve insulation,” says Milton Kaloudis, marketing manager at Fujitsu.
Tutto Bene has motorised retractable clear blinds on its balcony, which act to block the wind as well as trap the heat from the patio heaters, minimising the required heating energy use.
Meanwhile, zoning allows restaurateurs to heat only the space needed, so if the venue is half-full, energy isn’t being wasted on vacant areas, and this can be achieved with most heating systems.
Summer warmth in winter
Just because the temperature has dipped, it doesn’t mean a guest’s desire for al fresco dining will wane. A common challenge restaurateurs face in winter is heating their outdoor space to ensure guests remain comfortable and experience the best their venue has to offer. “We have a lot of international and interstate guests looking for a place to dine and we want to give them good service and a view of Melbourne in a comfortable dining environment,” says Strobel.
Gas patio heaters are a popular option as they’re relatively cheap to purchase and operate, and can be moved around easily to accommodate guests. However, they do take up floor space and require regular swapping of gas bottles. An alternative to this is a ceramic tile wall heater or overhead tube heater, both of which can be piped into the natural gas supply, and remain free of the table area.
Heating is a major factor at Baia at Darling Harbour, which has an open-plan layout with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors and a large portion of floor space dedicated to al fresco dining. “We use both gas heaters and overhead electric heaters,” says manager Karen McMenamin. “The gas heaters are convenient as they can be moved and are not too expensive to use.”
Tutto Bene employs five patio heaters for their balcony space. Strobel concedes regulating the gas bottles is fairly constant through winter and they require between two and three swap-overs a week.
Restaurateurs starting an eatery from scratch obviously have more scope to select energy-efficient heating, which will provide dividends down the track. The trick is making sure you have the right amount of heating required for your space. This is commonly measured in kilowatts of heating and can be determined by assessing the height of the ceilings, combined with the size of the seating area, the number of windows and the amount of fresh air brought in per head.
There are some simple online calculators that will provide an estimate of your heating requirements, but for a more detailed evaluation, a heating consultant may be a better option. “We have a program where we can just key in all that information and it will calculate how many kilowatts of heating are required for the space,” says Mick Owen, head commercial estimator at Conway Heating & Cooling in Melbourne.
Once your kilowatt heating requirements have been determined, the type of heating option available comes down to individual considerations such as system size and accessibility for installation. For example, an electric split system requires an area for the outdoor unit while a natural gas unit has to be flued out, so needs a ceiling flue.
The most economical form of heating is hydraulic slab heating, yet this is really only an option for those building a new restaurant from the ground up.
Therefore, modern heating options for restaurants tend to come down to a choice between gas or electricity. Yes, open log fires are an option too, but most venues are not fitted out to accommodate them. In the race between natural gas and electricity, natural gas generally wins out cost-wise and in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. However, not all venues can accommodate it, and it’s not available everywhere.
Further, if restaurateurs can secure a good electricity price through their supplier and have installed five-star energy systems, the gap narrows.
From here, the type of heating you choose depends on how much you want it to impact the aesthetics of the space. Gas ducted heating is popular as it doesn’t take up floor space, it operates quietly, and is economical to purchase. Electric ducted or cassette split systems are another practical solution for larger spaces.