Accessibility by design: creating a patio for everyone to enjoy

By Jessica Brill

Patio season is here again and as the weather continues to heat up and outdoor seating is in high demand, making that space available and welcoming to all restaurant guests is an important part of your operations. Whether your patio is stored away for the winter or it’s a four-season operation, consider an accessibility upgrade so everyone can get the most out of your patio experience.

According to studies, more than six million Canadians live with a disability, and almost 21 per cent of people over the age of 65 experience mobility issues – but that shouldn’t stop them from being able to enjoy your patio.

There are several elements of your patio design and operations that could help make it a safe and welcoming spot for all your guests.

Build an accessible floor plan

Wide aisleways and clear paths are the first steps in designing a patio that’s fully accessible. Consider the width of wheelchairs, along with the space someone with a cane might need, even leaving enough room for someone who needs assistance from another person as they head to their table. You may also want to include the floor plan on your website for customers looking to visit your restaurant ahead of time.

Simplify access

It’s often easiest for guests to gain entrance to the patio without going through the restaurant, so outside access can be very helpful. Keep in mind that grassy or uneven paths can be difficult to navigate with a wheelchair, cane, or walker, so it’s best to keep it simple with a paved path or sidewalk entrance. Also, pay attention to the slope of your curb cutouts and ramps to ensure they remain safe and clear for use.

Make it well-marked

If access to the patio is only available through the restaurant, ensure that there is a wide, clear path to the exterior. Be mindful of transitions, ensuring that they are flush and well-marked to make it easier for wheelchairs, mobility equipment, and people with low vision.

Consider the height

Think about physical space allowances once guests are at the table, like providing appropriate table heights to accommodate wheelchairs and mobility aids with enough room to fit once guests are seated.

Incorporate tech

Maintaining the look and feel of your restaurant is important and that may mean there’s low lighting at night. Consider using tech tools like tablets or QR codes so guests with low visibility can increase the font size or adjust the brightness for their needs. Technology tools like AI with features like voice recognition, speech-to-text, and more can help guests place their orders for a simpler, more enjoyable experience.

Watch traffic

Consider a one-way entrance and exit to the patio, the restaurant, and the washrooms. This helps limit the flow of traffic and may avoid the need for mobility vehicles to turn around.

Support working animals

Patios often present the unique opportunity to allow working animals to visit without too much accommodation. With street access, animals can have a safe spot with their owners on your patio without needing to mix with other guests.

Separate spaces

Keep your guests safe with a separation between pathways and roadways with things like fences or walls. You could even take a more decorative approach to try and maintain the look and feel of your restaurant with hedges, greenery, or planters as separation.

Limit wait times

Try and meet the demand for accessibility seating as closely as you can. Sometimes, when restaurants only have a few tables, people with disabilities must wait a long time for a table, which takes away from the experience, and they may be deterred from returning. It can be hard to gauge how much seating you need and manage it within your floor plan, but steps like taking reservations can help you get a handle on the demand and better manage wait times.

Follow the rules

Do your due diligence to stay compliant. There are a variety of resources out there to help you design an inclusive patio, along with governing bodies like The Ontario Human Right Commission and legislation like the Accessible Canada Act provide guidance to support people with disabilities and their access to your business.

Do your homework

Of course, these suggestions may not address every consideration your guests need, so going to the source can help raise the bar even further on your patio’s inclusivity. Look into the challenges people with disabilities are facing when dining out. Ask for feedback from your guests about where you could improve, read online reviews to see what is – and isn’t – working, and consult other local, accessible businesses for ideas that might help your business cater for everyone.

Social media is another great resource, with many accounts providing practical tips on how to improve restaurant access and offering restaurant reviews on inclusivity. Getting input right from the source will add credibility to your efforts as you strive to improve. Remember, too, that it’s a process and each year there may be slight variations or more things you can improve upon. Don’t take a set-it-and-forget-it approach; strive to be as inclusive as possible, year over year.

Train your team

A crucial part of this process is getting your team up to speed on what your customers need to enjoy their patio experience at your restaurant. Communication – between you and your team, and between your team and your guests – is vital. Start by reviewing your accessibility plan with your team and any new members coming on board.

Offer staff training on how best to accommodate your guests, stressing that comfort and safety are top priorities. Install signage for your staff to help remind them of your policies and keep accessibility top of mind. Make it easy for staff to remove chairs when needed or make minor re-arrangements for customers upon request.

Monitoring traffic flow, ensuring that guest needs are met, and making all possible accommodations will improve your guest experience, bring in repeat visits, and translate to higher profits.

Going above and beyond

Your customers and the heart and soul of your business. Your restaurant should provide a welcoming environment for anyone who wants to visit, and raising the bar on your guest experience, meeting their needs, and embracing inclusivity will heighten that experience.

Prioritizing patio accessibility (and accessibility throughout the rest of your restaurant) not only broadens your market, but also boosts your brand, shows that you care, encourages customers to return, and helps build your bottom line.

This article was originally featured in the Spring/Summer edition of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News magazine. To read the full issue, visit this link.