Tips for Planning Your Restaurant’s Outdoor Dining Area
Posted on June 12, 2014
With winter no longer restricting everyone to stay indoors, it’s quite common to hear customers asking for outdoor seating as the weather gets warmer. If you have an available outdoor space for tables and you’re not offering the option of dining outside to your guests, it may be time to consider the untapped possibilities.
Is Adding an Outdoor Dining Area Worth it? You bet.
If you’ve been wondering if adding an outdoor dining space is worth it, the answer is yes. People love eating outdoors. Take Oval Peterson’s word for it, co-owner and chef at the popular Bittersweet restaurant here in Denver, Colorado. Bittersweet offers artisan-crafted meals using locally grown ingredients (sometimes from their own garden!) within in an inspiring and naturally landscaped environment, complete with a forty-person garden patio.
Peterson states, “Once we start getting to the middle of June, middle of July, [customers] refuse to sit inside and they will wait as long as possible to sit outside.”
Even if your indoor space is airy and mimics an al fresco experience it doesn’t make a difference. Peterson’s Bittersweet restaurant features three ten-foot tall sliding doors, which in the summer are often times left open – and people still wait to dine outdoors. “They really want to cross that threshold and go through a door in which to enter an outdoor space.”
However, the al fresco option does come with new responsibilities and challenges, and they can make or break your reputation. Most obviously local permitting and weather are the two largest factors, but other unfamiliar obstacles should be considered as well. These can include staffing, reservation systems and the overall quality of your menu and service.
How to Meet the Challenges of Offering Outdoor Dining
We looked into the top five challenges of offering outdoor dining and discovered some real and first-hand solutions. These ideas can get you on the right track to utilizing your available outdoor space for the summer rush.
Pay Proper Attention to Your Kitchen
More often than not, the outdoor patio is the farthest place from your kitchen. Make sure your diners are getting the attention they deserve by staffing outdoor tables with servers and food runners. This will alleviate the issue of servers disappearing from guest areas.
Also, consider creating a half-way space between the dining area and the kitchen. This is the place where servers can stock up on commonly needed items such as water pitchers, silverware, napkins and bread baskets.
Some restaurants thrive off of the first-come first-serve policy for patios. But if your business offers a great gathering spot for office happy hours or romantic dinners, then you should consider the guest convenience of offering reservations. With the weather being somewhat of a gamble, there should also be caveats and back-up plans put in place. Peterson deals with the problem by accepting reservations, but warns that he does not guarantee anything. When asked if he ever had any customer horror stories, he responded with, “Every once in a while we deal with an emergency rainstorm…but it’s usually not that hard to get everyone inside and seated again quickly.” Consider keeping an available number of tables just inside the door if the weather looks iffy. It’s also good practice to decline reservations for the outdoor area if inclement weather is imminent.
Limit Unnecessary Interactions
With the exception of patio-sidewalk seating in big cities, do your best to maintain an area of peace around your outdoor seating area. If your restaurant is near a loud street, and a back patio option is possible, consider utilizing the backyard space over the front porch. If animals and or bugs are a nuisance, look into aesthetically pleasing fencing options or planting flowers with naturally repellent properties.
In the original plans of Bittersweet’s layout, the chef’s garden imposed a possible disturbance to patrons if the kitchen needed to clip some greens. So, they instead switched the plan and installed the garden beds out of the way, yet still in sight. This created a simple solution to efficiently use the practical parts of the garden while still presenting the organic atmosphere of the garden.
Whatever your unique and intrusive circumstance may be, the best answer comes in the individual solution that only you can prepare for after getting a feel for your outdoor space. Do some test runs and spend some time out there. Know your outdoor space and how it feels to be a customer sitting in it before going public.
Last but certainly not least, your outdoor space is most likely seasonal, meaning each spring you technically expand your restaurant, and each fall you shrink it back to indoor seating only. This can cause some staffing issues. Depending on your space you may have to hire on temporary summer staff. Luckily, summer in general is a very easy time of year to find seasonal help. Adding on a handful of extra employees for that time shouldn’t be problematic. Just plan ahead accordingly and adjust your human resource policies if necessary.
Jokingly quoting Field of Dreams’, “If you build it, they will come,” Peterson advises that his decision to add an outdoor space has come with no regrets since it opened in 2011.
He believes deeply in the idea that eating outside is a full body experience and that it goes above and beyond just the linear taste of something. He is convinced that it’s not until one is “really getting more into the idea of: what does it look like, what do you hear when eating this dish — beyond just taste. What do you see and feel, and can you actually evoke emotion out of someone.”
Appealing to all the senses in a pleasing and stimulating way, “That will make [for] a memorable event” says Peterson.
How about you? Are you ready to create an outdoor dining experience for your customers? Or have you already? What tips do you have?