What today’s diners are looking for in patios

With outdoor dining on various provinces’ agendas heading into summer, David Hopkins offers the need-to-know.

By David Hopkins

Two years ago, consumers ranked restaurant patios primarily based on their “vibe”, their menu, and their crowd. Now, getting on for 16 months into the pandemic, that can’t be further from the truth.

In 2021, it’s all about transparency, safety, and a high level of customer service amidst these unusual times. This summer season will see a change in the very nature of how consumers rate patio dining.

Consumer expectations have heightened in many ways since March 2020, justified mainly by mounting health and safety concerns. These changing attitudes mean that restaurants will have to work harder to deliver a 10/10 guest experience, win word of mouth referrals, and maintain a positive, successful guest experience.

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Guests will largely be ranking patios and restaurants in general based on their health and safety protocol. While most restaurants upheld extremely rigorous sanitation standards pre-pandemic, they likely didn’t advertise or communicate it.

Now, it’s all about transparency. It’s not enough to have an impeccably clean restaurant; you must let your audience know everything you are doing. Keep your social media and website updated, along with in-store signage, with all your health and safety standards and initiatives in place to keep guests and staff safe. As soon as anything changes, whether your hours of operation, services, or menu, let guests know as soon as possible to demonstrate a high level of care and customer service.

Diners will also be watching to see how restaurant staff and other guests adhere to various protocols. It’s one thing to have thoughtful regulations in place, but it’s another to ensure that everyone respects them. It will be essential to conduct rigorous staff training to make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of best practices and protocol and have standard procedures in place for managing guest push-back or customers who refuse to abide by your rules.

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Pre-pandemic, diners would have evaluated restaurant patio menus based on options and taste, with natural influence from personal preferences. Now, there are so many other factors at play. Based on government restrictions, eating outdoors is sometimes the only option for restaurant dining. This means that many guests have to withstand cooler temperatures, rain, and more in the name of dining out.

This will become a new standard by which to rate menus: their conduciveness to outdoor dining. For example, diners will look for some warm options, even in the summer, for those chilly nights and as your patio transitions into Fall. The same goes for drinks: make sure you have a variety of hot and cold beverages available and train your staff to recommend drinks suited to all types of weather. For example, imperial stouts, which are rich and full-bodied, are great for cold-weather drinking as opposed to lighter, fruitier beers.

While safety should always be your top priority, there’s no reason why patio dining has to be cold and impersonal; there are many ways you can elevate guest experience while following protocol. Make your patio space cosier by offering branded blankets for guests to use on cool nights or create unique photo opportunities to make outdoor dining more memorable for everyone. With so many people craving human connection these days, you may also want to encourage servers to strike up a conversation with guests from a safe distance and find ways to engage with them throughout the steps of service. Of course, not everyone will be interested in chatting, so it is also important to be cognisant of diners who would rather have their privacy. 

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At the end of the day, regardless of your health and safety standards, everyone will have a different comfort level when it comes to dining at restaurants; based on vaccination rates, personal health concerns, or otherwise, many consumers will be more hesitant to return to in-person dining right away. Based on this, restaurants should strive to have many options in place to serve their guests’ needs. While you’ll want to invest in making your patio a comfortable and enjoyable space, make sure you still offer some great takeout options for those who would prefer to eat at home right now.

All in all, restaurant operations are more complicated right now, as are most other businesses. While operators will have to work a bit harder to deliver a 10/10 guest experience on their patios, putting in the thought and effort to do so will work towards building customer loyalty and a positive brand reputation. These sentiments will serve your restaurant well, both now and once the pandemic is behind us.

David Hopkins is president and founder of The Fifteen Group, a leader in restaurant profit maximization. With offices in Toronto and Vancouver, The Fifteen Group has helped over 1,000 restaurants achieve their profit goals.