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With the urge to socialize around flames being such a deep part of the human psyche, bold fire features are natural winners in hospitality settings.
“Restaurant patrons don’t mind waiting longer for a table if they can sit around a fireplace, while bar and club owners know that the warm glow of an outdoor fire pit prolongs the cocktail hour,” notes Scott Cohen, a Southern California landscape designer and author of Outdoor Fireplaces & Fire Pits. “That translates directly into profits.”
The most crowd-pleasing options for these popular amenities rely on the design flexibility of propane or natural gas, which let designers create inventive styles that wouldn’t be practical with traditional wood fireplaces. For hospitality businesses and restaurants in locations without natural gas, propane is key to unlocking the profit potential of these gathering spots.
Designers say that the key to a successful fireplace is drama. “You absolutely need a beautiful flame,” says Kurt Rumens, founder and president of Seattle-area Travis Industries, which makes a range of residential and commercial fireplaces. “People have to be drawn to it, so it can’t be anemic.” Propane and gas let the business provide that drama without the liability of a wood-burner.
Of course the more people you can fit around the fire feature, the better. To accommodate the maximum number of patrons, more businesses are installing linear propane or gas fireplaces in a sleek, contemporary style for use in outdoor patios or dining areas. “They use a combination of metal and glass that integrates well with modern architecture,” says Frank Lo, senior designer at MZA Architecture in Bellevue, Washington.
Manufacturers are also making fireplaces with two glass facings. They can be incorporated into the building envelope to separate inside from outside for a unique see-through experience.
MZA Vice President Craig Davenport finds these fireplace trends to be largely generational. “Younger people coming into the hospitality industry want their outdoor spaces bumped up,” he says. “We’ve seen fireplaces up to 20 feet long.”
They’re about to get even longer. Travis Industries is building a 1-million-Btu, 66-foot fireplace for an outdoor event space at a condo development, a design that Rumens has submitted to Guinness World Records. He hopes it will be voted the longest ever.
Cool to the touch
But while customers want bold flames, business owners naturally don’t want anyone getting burned. Super-long propane or gas fireplaces weren’t common until recently, in part because they put so many people next to very hot glass. Cool glass solved the problem.
For instance, the Travis unit features double-pane glass, along with fans that circulate cool outside air through the space between the panes. “You can touch the glass without getting burned,” Rumens says. The cooling system works so well that burners can be placed next to the glass to create a wall of fire.
Fireplace safety is an engineering problem, but making fire pits safe and appealing requires good design, smart placement, and effective management.
Cohen recommends locating a fire extinguisher near the fire pit — a surprising number of businesses don’t — and assigning someone during each work shift to regulate the flames. Unlike traditional wood firepits, propane fire pits can be easily regulated with a key that adjusts the flow of gas, which is one reason they account for the vast majority of commercial fire pits. “You will probably want to turn down the flames when there are lots of small children running around or if the adults are drinking too much,” he says.
The right location enhances safety and ambience. “In a commercial setting, I advise owners to keep the fire pit away from high-traffic areas where a passer-by could throw something into it and cause a flare-up,” says Duane Draughon, owner of VizX Design Studios in Chicago. “The best location is a quiet zone where people can sit back and chill.”
Another consideration is the coping around the edge of the pit. Cohen and Draughon both like to see a width of at least 12–16 inches, as people will inevitably rest their feet on it and you want to keep those feet away from the flames. The coping should also be no higher than 14 inches off the ground — low enough to discourage someone from sitting on it.
Some customers opt for a protective glass shield, which can range from 6 to 24 inches high. A well-designed shield can even be an aesthetic advantage. “It doesn’t have to detract from the experience,” Cohen says. Rather, by acting as a windshield, the glass helps make the flames more consistent.
The point is that the unique viewing experiences offered by today’s propane and gas fire features create more opportunity than ever for hospitality businesses to add the comforting flicker of flames to their outdoor gathering spaces. For businesses located in areas without natural gas, propane helps make those spaces more popular and profitable than ever.