Wondering how to extend your restaurant’s outdoor dining/patio season this year? You’re not alone. Patio season traditionally brings in a nice revenue boost for restaurants during the warmer months in most areas of the country. During the Covid-19 pandemic, patio service isn’t just bringing in additional revenue. It’s a primary source of revenue since indoor dining has largely been limited to 25-50% capacity, if allowed at all. New York City for example, reopened indoor dining September 30th, for the first time since March.
Avero Index data shows that revenue from patio and outdoor dining as a percentage of total sales has doubled during the pandemic. The actual number is likely even higher than double considering that not every restaurant has created a separate revenue center for patio service in their point of sale system. Those with a designated, separate revenue center identified as a patio/balcony/deck/garden/outdoor etc. are captured in our data set.
Avero data also shows that patio season has already peaked for the year. As shown in the graph above, outdoor dining rose sharply in early May, and began trending down beginning in September. For restaurants facing restrictions on the number of indoor customers they can serve, extending patio season has never been more important.
To that end, we’ve put together a guide with affordable and easy-to-implement ideas you can use to extend your restaurant’s patio season into colder temperatures. Check it out and see if there are any ideas you can apply to your restaurant to keep that revenue flowing as long as possible before throwing in the towel on outdoor dining. We’ve grouped our suggestions by category including: the space, the food, and the service.
Perfecting your patio space
Many restaurants have already expanded outdoor seating as a way to make up for capacity restrictions indoors. What is considered acceptable for outdoor dining varies by city so check your local ordinances when making a plan.
Chicago is crowdsourcing creative solutions for outdoor dining via their Winter Design Challenge. The city outlined guidelines for outdoor dining that can serve as a good benchmark for creating your own plan. Highlights include:
- 50% open sides for airflow
- Proper ventilation for enclosed private igloos/pods
- A permit to install permanent heating outside
- A permit for structures greater than 400 feet and/or taller than 15 feet
The idea submissions they’ve received are truly innovative and serve as good inspiration for creating your own outdoor space and/or modifying it for cooler temps. But if you don’t have the resources to build new semi-permanent structures or invest in complex heating schemes, you can still add affordable touches to make your outdoor space more inviting and practical for less than optimal outdoor dining temperatures.
Create overhead shelter
If you’re going to push the traditional weather boundaries for outdoor dining, it’s important to have some sort of overhead coverage. Customers wanting to eat out are willing to tolerate less than ideal temperatures but will not tolerate any precipitation. Since it will be impossible to move customers indoors if the weather turns, you’ll need a solution in place beforehand.
Most patios have some sort of umbrella type covering for sun protection. But in the fall/winter, individual table umbrellas won’t be sufficient to keep precipitation off the dining area and your staff.
Sun shade sails are a great temporary solution for outdoor spaces because they are inexpensive, lightweight, and provide a large area of coverage. Plus, they’re easy to deploy once the hooks have been placed.
Look for waterproof versions and use a variety of shapes and sizes. You can even layer them for maximum coverage and visual appeal. Large square or rectangle umbrellas are useful in a pinch if they’re strategically placed edge to edge for greater coverage.
Popup cabanas are a fairly inexpensive shelter solution as well. This option allows for seating flexibility since they can be moved around easily. Choose one with weighted anchors instead of ground steaks. And take advantage of the structure they provide to create even more ambiance with greenery, lighting, and other decorative touches.
Block the breeze with curtains
Curtains add a nice, cozy touch to outdoor spaces. Hardier, waterproof curtains can add a great deal of warmth to outdoor spaces just by blocking the breeze. Built-in grommets on top and bottom help keep curtains in place. They can also serve as a barrier between tables in the interest of social distancing.
Warm the space with heaters and fire pits
Heaters are a very important aspect of patio comfort. The available styles span the gamut from traditional free-standing propane heaters, to wall-mounted, remote-controlled styles. They come in electric, infrared, or quartz radiant heat models.
The best heater for your space depends on a lot of factors so it’s best to research before purchasing. Here’s a great resource we found listing the top patio heater recommendations in a variety of categories.
A best practice tip we’ve discovered is that strategically placed fans are great at spreading artificial heat around the space. Ceiling fans running clockwise on low are ideal for keeping the heat trapped. In the absence of a ceiling or ceiling fans, you can also use standard fans to direct and disperse heat.
One of our customers uses infrared box heaters with flexible duct hosing to push warm air underneath tables. This helps keeps the air temperature comfortable near customers’ feet and legs. Plus, the warm air can rise from the ground instead of starting at shoulder height and dispersing more quickly.
Many of the entries for Chicago’s winter dining design challenge incorporate versions of this approach, borrowing from the Japanese kotatsu tradition of eating at a table covered with a blanket and tabletop, with a heat source underneath.
And don’t forget about propane fire pit options. They come in all shapes and sizes. You can create communal lounge type sitting areas or have them on the bar or individual tabletops as well. Fire pits instantly add both actual heat and an illusion of warmth. Use them to create a welcoming outdoor vibe to draw-in customers.
Create ambiance with warm lighting
Firepits aren’t the only way to create warmth and a comfortable atmosphere. Choose lighting that adds a warm feeling to your patio space. Candles and string lights are a great, inexpensive choice for creating ambient light. Consider using hurricane style candles that protect the flame from the elements, reduce fire-risk, and add warmth by heating the glass container.
Fairy lights are a great choice because they’re small enough to use in candle fixtures and centerpieces. The flexible wire is useful for wrapping around umbrella poles and balcony railings. And they come in battery and solar powered options. Use them freely without worrying about cords and power sources.
If you create an ambient, low-light environment on the patio, take care to add ample lighting along walking paths to and from the restaurant and bathroom.
Add another touch of hospitality
High-quality blankets are often used on patios to offer chilly customers an extra measure of warmth and hospitality. While we love the concept, it’s probably not a safe or practical option during the Covid-19 pandemic. Messaging a BYOB (Bring-Your-Own-Blanket) policy for patio service could add a fun, appealing twist to patio dining.
Disposable hand warmers are relatively inexpensive. They can be safely worn in shoes, gloves, or pockets to increase body temperature and comfort. Keep some on hand for particularly sensitive customers (and staff).
Warm up your seats
A cold metal chair is the enemy of prolonging patio dining. If your seats are metallic it’s a great idea to add some type of chair cushions or coverings. A little foam will go a long way towards trapping body heat and adding comfort. If you really want customers to rave and tell all their friends, invest in heated seat cushions.
Similarly, tablecloths will take the edge off of a cold table where guests place their hands and arms. And the fabric of a tablecloth can add a degree of warmth and comfort on customers’ legs as well as blocking the breeze.
Perfecting your patio food
Last month, we discussed the finer points of perfecting your menu for to-go sales. Many concepts discussed in that blog are also pertinent to crafting a patio-friendly menu. We suggested testing the durability of items being served in to go boxes after sitting a while. In this case, you might want to test the durability of some dishes being served in chilly temperatures outdoors.
As always, make sure you’re running category sales reports to monitor the popularity of your menu items. Be sure to capitalize on any trends you see.
Keep it hot…or not
Keeping food hot is a concern. Hot food that retains heat well like soups and stews are likely to be popular. Conversely, food served on the colder or room temperature side like salads and cheese plates may do well outdoors.
The type of serving dish you use can also make a difference in terms of retaining heat outdoors. Consider serving certain dishes in miniature cast iron skillets or using a cloche for temperature sensitive items. Serve warm bread or chips in baskets covered with a cloth napkin.
Use warm flavors to create appeal
Temperature is only one aspect of the types of dishes that will perform better in chilly weather. Flavor is just as important. A salad may seem like summer fare. Served with beets, rich cheeses, and nuts, rather than cucumbers and tomatoes, a salad can present a more autumn-friendly tone.
Avero data shows that seasonality impacts the popularity of certain types of items. Richer beers like ales and porters sell better during the colder months, whereas lagers and pilsners dominate in the summer. Clear broth-based soups will not be as popular as heartier stews and cream-based soups in the winter.
Serve an array of hot beverages
Plan on serving a lot of hot coffee. Keep your coffee stations near your outdoor space to facilitate regular refills. Consider beefing up your hot beverage menu to go beyond tea and hot cocoa. Create a menu full of delightful hot toddies and autumn themed cocktails.
Make it fun
Diners willing to sit on the patio during the fall and winter are game for a little adventure. Don’t shy away from ideas that veer from the norm. Serve DIY smores with homemade marshmallows. Resurrect fondu. Hire fire dancers for entertainment—and warmth. Dining outdoors in cold weather is avant-garde so run with that. See what kind of delight you can create for your guests.
Perfecting your patio service
Don’t forget to make adjustments for the comfort, safety, and effectiveness of your floor staff. Make sure your server stations are well stocked and close to your outdoor space to reduce the number of steps staff must take between the kitchen, the patio station, and the customers. Consider adding another temporary busing station. And be sure to pay attention to lighting in staff areas as well.
Chose appropriate staff uniforms
If you require staff to wear uniforms, make sure you add appropriate elements for cold weather. If you don’t have a uniform, set expectations for acceptable cold weather attire. Layers and insulating fabrics like wool and synthetics will help employees stay warm without the bulk of puffy winter jackets.
Mind the floors
If you stretch your patio days to their limit, you’re likely to encounter wet weather. If it’s wet outside, customers and servers will track in moisture and leave muddy footprints behind. Wet leaves and debris pose a safety risk. So, it’s important to operationalize a plan to monitor and clean the floors regularly, particularly in high traffic areas.
Create thoughtful reservation cancellation policies
Strict reservation policies are a logical response to the current coronavirus pandemic. But they may not make sense when it comes to patio service and the unpredictability of inclement weather. If you’re not able to weatherproof your space enough to continue service during a rainstorm have a plan for contacting diners and rescheduling reservations.
That’s it for this week’s tips on how to extend your restaurant’s patio season. Next week watch for our article about how to use Avero to plan for patio days based on the weather forecast and historical trends on like days.