It may not feel like it just yet, but patio season is on the way again. Programs like Toronto’s CaféTO and Vancouver’s own system will be underway again this spring made permanent in some major jurisdictions, and with hopes of a sustained reopening this time around, it could be a much-needed busy summer for those with a restaurant patio.
But just how can operators make the most of their outdoor space?
A recent pair of webinars offered plenty of advice for maximizing the appeal and the revenue potential of a restaurant patio this spring and summer.
Olivia Harrison, Director of Design and Brand at restaurant consultancy firm The Fifteen Group, stressed that several key factors, ranging from colour to consistency to spacing, make for a profitable patio. Above all, she noted, “the most successful patios are the ones that feel like an extension of the inside of the restaurant”.
Optimize visual appeal
It all starts with the appearance of the patio, said Harrison. Just as a restaurant’s interior must wow without being over-the-top, so too must the external seating areas.
Ensuring your restaurant patio décor looks intentional and consistent with the interior can win a lot of the initial appeal battle. An outdoor seating area shouldn’t feel like a whole different establishment. Consistent branding is vital.
To that end, choose a colour pattern that’s consistent with your restaurant’s brand and feels welcoming for guests. This can also be tied into your table décor outside. “If something works nicely indoors, why not replicate/extend it outdoors?” asked Harrison.
When it comes to the furniture, strike a balance between comfort and style. While keeping in mind the practicalities – furniture must either be winter-resilient or easily storable – Harrison suggested choosing comfortable, mixed seating and perhaps creating zones. Benches, lounge seating and sofas, traditional table seating, and stools can all have their place.
Set the mood with lighting and music
Your lighting decisions are crucial to creating the atmosphere and the ambience of your restaurant patio. Low-level or mood lighting can be a real winner, added Harrison, as nobody likes to sit under bright burning lights with a drink or meal. But, of course, ensuring the patio is adequately lit in both daylight and the dark of night is important.
Consider using multi-level lighting. Some combination of twinkle lights, bistro lights, battery-powered lamps, solar-powered lights, candles (with caution, of course) can create a truly alluring space.
Piping in some music can also contribute to the ambience – at a low level, of course, and as local regulations permit. Harrison noted that calm acoustic music can significantly boost the appeal of a restaurant patio.
Finally, everyone loves greenery. Making your patio feel parklike or evoking feelings of traditional and/or European patios can be a big winner.
Practicalities must be considered
Of course, while the look and feel of a restaurant patio are important, so too are ensuring it meets regulations and provides safety, comfort, and accessibility to your guests.
Creating a sense of separation between pathways and roadways is vital. There are many ways this can be done, from traditional barriers like fences and walls to more innovative options like flower planters or even benched walls, which offer not just separation from the wider world but added seating space.
Catering to those with accessibility needs is vital, as is considering guest and pedestrian traffic flow and clearly communicating.
Execute and communicate your Accessible Access Plan and ensure there is clear signage, whether that is wayfaring signage or added direction that can improve the guest experience. Be transparent about your designated waiting areas, washrooms, accessibility, opening hours, menu – essentially, communicate your entire experience.
Making the most of your restaurant patio operations
“Patios are an easy way for restaurants to make more money,” added David Hopkins, President of The Fifteen Group. “We want to make sure restaurants don’t squander this opportunity. Guest experience is the number-one thing that drives repetitive revenue and new revenue.”
Certainly, an appealing and efficient outdoor dining experience can provide a huge boost to a restaurant’s bottom line.
Ultimately, maintaining the quality and efficiency of your indoor dining service outdoors is crucial, Hopkins stressed.
So is anticipating the weather, and the trouble it can cause.
“Know when you get sun and shade and plan accordingly with umbrellas etc,” Hopkins suggested “Anticipate guest complaints or comments. Make sure you offer adequate weather protection – heaters in winter and coolers or summer, wind protection, umbrellas, awnings. In unseasonably cold weather, for example, providing blankets can be a key differentiator for guests.”
Finally, know your demographic and know your menu. Smooth service drives profitability, concluded Hopkins, and focusing your service on items that are quick execution for a patio such as easy salads and sandwiches, as well as offering certain weather-specific items can help to attract custom and keep your service ticking over.
“Make sure you can execute the entire menu the same way you could before,” said Hopkins. “You may be going from 40 covers to 80 covers, and that may require some menu pivots. Create items that allow for a lot of pre-prep and quick execution/service. Have lots of shareables that are conducive to groups. You can complement this with the use of technology such as an accessible remote POS for servers and digital ordering, as well as with layout tweaks like installing side stations on the patio for water, ice, condiments etc. Ultimately, optimizing and expediting service is the key.”
Invest in the experience
Utilizing a combination of these strategies can go a long way to creating a standout patio. Many of the suggestions here would include some level of investment, but given a patio’s revenue-boosting potential, these investments are encouraged and can set your restaurant up well for the future.
“Once you’re up and operational and you’re getting revenues on the patio, the only additional costs you’re incurring are your product costs, which are around 30 per cent, some marginal labour costs, and other small things,” says Hopkins. “It really does add 50 per cent to your bottom line. The question is what that is worth to you.”
These spaces may be temporary in many cases, but they don’t need to feel that way.