Everyone loves outdoor dining in the summer, but outdoor dining can boost your traffic all year long.
Eating outdoors (aka “dining al fresco”) is one of the simple pleasures of the restaurant patron experience. Food tastes better and drinks go down easier in the fresh air. For restaurant owners in the Midwest facing winter weather, it’s tough to weigh the cost-to-benefit ratio of setting up a space for a few months out of the year. Yet, with some smart strategies, it’s possible to create a comfortable patio, diners will enjoy with or without cooperation from Mother Nature.
Making the Most of Outdoor Dining Spaces
For restaurant owners, the question of how to increase traffic without crowding your diners is always a big one. You could offer food to go, but the option includes its own set of logistics. Many small restaurants operate on a rather tiny footprint. You need space for your kitchen, your bar and the front of the house. When a formal expansion isn’t in the budget, there’s no better place to look than right outside your door.
To create an outdoor dining area, check your city ordinances first. If you wish to create a dining space on the sidewalk adjacent to your restaurant, you may need a sidewalk dining facility permit. This is especially true of your restaurant also serves alcohol (which is subject to its own set of regulations). Cooking any food outside or expanding your bar to include outdoor services may also require a permit.
If you own your restaurant property and it includes a private patio or other less-used space, this is a great consideration for expanding to outdoor seating. A side lot or back courtyard offers a space for seating as well. Modern restaurant designs include rooftops, backyard-style area, and gardens where fresh ingredients are grown daily.
While bistro seating and people watching on a busy sidewalk provides an excellent outdoor experience, being nestled away in the fresh air also has its appeal. Sidewalk dining doesn’t provide the climate control some restaurant owners are looking for. Consider your neighborhood, traffic (and foot traffic) before opting for a sidewalk expansion. All it takes is a loiterer with a cigar or a busy bus stop to ruin a fine dining experience.
For a more private and intimate dining experience, a hidden patio surrounded by tall fences, or even a screened porch is a better fit. A cozier, protected space will give customers a sense you’re not only offering great food but a hidden world to complete their dining experience.
One major mistake restaurant owners often make when it comes to outdoor dining, is to overlook traffic flow. Don’t let your desire to increase your seating override your planning and logic. Tables should provide enough space for diners to comfortably eat and servers need space to walk. The industry standard is 300 square inches of space per diner. Spacing is still an important consideration for outdoor and patio dining.
Adapting Space for Year-Round Outdoor Dining
When you’ve settled on your outdoor space, the real fun begins! Create an inviting space for those great sunny day dining experiences. Even if the weather is fickle, patrons will start considering eating outdoors as early as March and as late as October. You might think the summer is the only time outdoor seating is useful, but those days of hope in the spring and last gasps of summer will still bring in customers and their dollars if you have a space ready to use.
Year-round outdoor dining tables may need to be a little tougher and weather-resistant. Metal high-tops, bistro tables or rustic, treated wood fits nicely with an outdoor environment. White linen service is possible outdoors, but get your staff prepared to strip tables in a hurry if there’s a cloudburst. Umbrella tables add a pub-like feel to your seating area but protect diners from too much sun, wind or a light downpour. Low-profile chairs, benches and even lounge-style seating fit into an outdoor space.
The main component of extending an outdoor restaurant space’s utility is adding smart climate control. Radiant space heaters are a wise investment that will quickly pay for themselves. A commercial heating unit covers approximately 200 square feet and will run $1,000-$2,000. With this type of heater, diners are comfortable even when the weather drops to 40 degrees, allowing outdoor dining even on warm January days.
Depending on the atmosphere and style of your restaurant, a more casual propane fire pit could also create a warm and inviting experience. Lounge-style seating or tables with built-in propane fireplaces give diners plenty of warmth. Pits enclosed in stainless steel mesh will protect diners from getting too close. Of course, check your local fire codes before installing any heating units in your facility.
Keep diners warm on cold days with enclosed “outdoor” seating as well. Enclosures go beyond the simple tents and screen doors of yesteryear. Modern commercial tents offer heating, windows and other features of a full building even if the structure is only a temporary cover through the heavier winter months. Shutters, awnings and lightweight windows on a patio keep bad weather out. These pieces are often removable, so when the weather is fully in bloom, they can be taken away for unblemished enjoyment.
Though not as a high a climate concern here in the Midwest, keeping diners cool on the hottest days is also important. On warm summer days, the trick is airflow. Well placed ceiling fans and even attractive (or disguised) box fans increase airflow and cool down patio dining. In sweltering weather diners often prefer the safety of air-conditioned buildings but using tried and true older methods can regulate airflow for outdoor patrons and beat the heat.
An Exciting Al Fresco Experience
Not only is adding an outdoor dining space a chance to maximize your restaurant traffic, it’s a way to create an additional experience for your guests. Patio, rooftop or sidewalk “dining rooms” may become a place where you offer special dishes. You can create and promote variations on your base concept or use the dining area as a lab to test out new dishes for the menu.
An outdoor space can become a semi-permanent home to the dishes available from your food truck because it offers a laid back, less-formal atmosphere. Your patio is a great place to test the popularity of specials, promotions and pinpoint where your restaurant could expand in the future.
The turnover outdoors is often a little faster, energy is a little brighter and the appearance of a busy, buzzing outdoor patio is great advertising for your establishment. Promote specials on your patio and near your sidewalk tables, so passersby can read, see and smell what you have to offer.
Patio dining is also a great spot for drink specials and outdoor cocktails (provided you’ve secured the proper license). Does your brewery offer a saison beer for the summer? Then perhaps offer it a little more cheaply on your patio during warm days where thirsty guests will appreciate the flavors even more. An outdoor bar is a great addition to your patio, even if it’s less robust than your bar in-house.
While summer is the best time for outdoor dining, it’s not the only time. Take advantage of outdoor space for extra seating no matter the time of year. You will increase your capacity and expand your operation (and revenue) without a full build-out or the investment in a larger space. Outdoor dining offers additional appeal and an enhanced experience for your guests. Make the most of your space by adding fresh air meal service.