Spring has sprung and warm weather is upon us — meaning more and more customers are craving outdoor dining spots to catch up with friends and enjoy refreshing meals and drinks in the sun.
While you may have been able to get by with a few chairs and sidewalk bistro tables in years past, strategically setting up an attractive outdoor dining area can do wonders for your bottom line. The National Restaurant Association (NRA) reports that since March 2020, 62% of fine dining operators and 56% of casual dining operators have invested additional resources in expanding their outdoor dining space to safely serve more diners amid the pandemic.
Not sure where to start? Here are our top tips for perfecting every part of your outdoor dining setup, from menu creation and seasonal offerings to staff training and signage. Your guests will be basking in the sun — and telling their friends to do the same — in no time.
Benefits of outdoor dining
After being cooped up all winter, your customers are in serious need of some vitamin C — especially if your restaurant is in a bustling city where private outdoor space is few and far between. In fact, according to a 2020 survey conducted by Slate at the height of the pandemic, 36% of respondents felt comfortable dining outdoors, whereas only 15% felt comfortable dining in a reduced capacity indoor setting. The experience of dining outdoors can also attract food-loving millennials, who are driven to outdoor dining spaces by the relaxed atmosphere and photo-worthy set-ups.
While many restaurants expanded outdoor dining options as a way to serve guests during the pandemic, these terraces, patios, and backyards are also great marketing tools, as the ambiance draws attention to your restaurant for passersby and on social media. Outdoor dining areas can transport customers to a piazza in Italy, café in Paris, or secret garden in India, all while offering a safe, breezy space to enjoy a meal. Making the space your own with colorful chairs, lush planters, and bright umbrellas will entice people to make a reservation ASAP.
Preparing outdoor lunch for a crowd
While getting ready to serve outdoor meals can take some time, energy, and even renovation, it’s one of many creative marketing strategies that can get more guests clamoring for an al fresco reservation. Here are the key factors to keep in mind as you develop a bustling outdoor dining area:
Follow local health and safety guidelines
Right from the start, verify any safety guidelines and restrictions that may be in place, both locally and from the CDC. These include obtaining necessary permits, capacity limits, regulations on operating hours, infrastructure guidelines, resources for alcohol service, and more.
Make your existing outdoor space shine
Your outdoor space may be the first thing people see at your restaurant — or it could be the coveted space tucked away and shared via word of mouth. The following steps will take you from an empty patio to a lush oasis.
Spruce up your patio. Clear away any dust, debris, or litter cluttering your outdoor space and create an efficient floor plan for the area that is both easy for your staff to navigate and makes guests feel safe from traffic and passersby, while giving ample room for social distancing. Be creative in this stage — if there’s an unsightly, potentially dangerous crack on a city sidewalk, invest in large planters to cover it — ensuring safety for guests and elevating your aesthetic.
Deep clean all furniture and surfaces. Outdoor furniture is likely sturdier than what you have indoors, but also more susceptible to anything the outdoors may throw at it. As you reopen outdoor dining for summer, start with a clean slate by deep cleaning all outdoor tables, chairs, umbrella stands, or server stations so they are ready for guests and free of any cobwebs or dust from storage.
Ensure outdoor spaces are accessible. Make sure your outdoor areas are ADA-compliant by adding ramp or elevator access, and checking that tables are tall enough to accommodate wheelchairs. If a street dining setup past a curb is inevitable, consider adding extra tables on the sidewalk that are accessible to a variety of needs.
Brainstorm the best outdoor lighting solutions. Ambient lighting sets the scene for guests looking to have a romantic evening, but is also a necessary safety measure for your staff and diners. Look into sturdy outdoor lights that can withstand harsh weather while supporting your desired aesthetic — globe string lights are especially popular for creating an inviting outdoor area.
Consider temperature control needs. According to the NRA, 60.5 degrees Farenheit is the lowest average temperature guests will tolerate when eating outdoors. While customers flock to dine outside when it’s 70 degrees and sunny, you may have a harder time filling seats when it’s cloudy and windy or sticky and humid. Depending on your space — and your operating season — invest in heat lamps, fans, or blankets to ensure the comfort of your guests at all times. Particularly with heat lamps, check with local guidelines in advance to see what restrictions are in place that could affect what kind of lamp you are able to get based on your infrastructure.
Expand into new spaces
Depending on what’s available for your restaurant, you may be able to expand your outdoor dining space seasonally or based on adjusted local guidelines. Many regulations that were adapted to expand safer dining options have continued due to their popularity. Here’s how you can take advantage:
Build a parklet. If allowed in your area, these sidewalk extensions transform streets and parking areas into dynamic dining options, with many featuring unique designs, greenery, and lighting emblematic of each restaurant. Check to see if your city plans to close streets or open parking lots for restaurants to accommodate additional seating.
Rent a nearby patio space. If you’re in a retail-heavy area and know some of your neighbors aren’t utilizing their outdoor space, ask if you can rent it for added seating. Becoming friends with neighbors has many perks, and partnering with nearby businesses could even bring you more customers through word of mouth.
Expand onto the sidewalk. If you’ve been limiting your seating to a few tables at your front door, consider expanding your outdoor offerings onto the sidewalk and even around the corner if your municipality permits it. Not only does having extra tables give you the opportunity to generate more sales — it also draws more attention to your restaurant as people walk past.
Train your staff on outdoor-friendly protocols
With a different infrastructure comes a different method of operations, requiring strategic communication between employees and a game plan for set-up, clean-up, and service. Here are a few things your staff should keep in mind:
Cleaning schedules. Create a unique outdoor cleaning and maintenance checklist to advise your team on what needs to be cleaned outdoors and when — from sweeping at the end of the night to sanitizing tables to restocking the outdoor server station.
Hand-washing guidelines. Though your outdoor team may be farther from a hand-washing sink than they would be in the dining room, make sure they continue to frequently wash their hands after bussing tables and before running food or drinks. Keeping hand sanitizer at an outdoor station will also be appreciated by servers and guests.
How often they check in with guests. To get popular outdoor tables turned quickly, train your hosts with efficient seating rotations — or better yet, plan out your table assignments in advance using your reservation management system — so servers aren’t overwhelmed with too many tables at once. Additionally, since many outdoor dining areas are physically separated from the rest of the dining room, help your staff by not dividing sections to include several indoor and outdoor tables — if you do, they’re likely to forget people are sitting outside.
Create clear guidelines and signage for guests
An age-old problem of outdoor dining is guests who sit at an open table without checking in with a host or server. Avoid this situation by setting clear guidelines for guests from the start, including:
How and where to check in. Get signage so guests know how to get a table, like going inside to speak with a host or waiting outside to be seated — especially if you need to take their temperature or do contact tracing before they sit down.
Rules for where and when to wear masks. Include signs asking people to wear masks as locally regulated or per your restaurant’s policy. Make sure your team is aware of the most current policies so they are able to actively enforce them.
How to pay. You may have updated your payment process during the pandemic to minimize contact between staff and diners. Make sure your staff lets guests know how they can expect to pay: via an app or QR code, with a tableside card reader, or through a server at the end of the meal.
Outdoor menu maker wins
Offering exclusive outdoor menu items is a sure way to attract a variety of diners — whether they’re looking for a quick bite or a full meal. While your winter menu may have been all about comfort food and hearty dishes, your summer menu should embrace warm weather bounty (think tomatoes, zucchini, and corn) and refreshing, cool drinks.
When you begin to make your menu, remember that these dishes will be enjoyed in the heat. Because of that, lighter, colder options are preferable — such as a burrata salad and ceviche instead of steak frites and roasted chicken. Menu items that celebrate the season, from cocktails with fresh herbs to zucchini fritters, will make the end of the winter doldrums all the more festive and appreciated.
Once your outdoor oasis is primped, polished, and ready to welcome guests, spread the word on social media, in your email newsletter, and on your website, highlighting whether people can make a reservation ahead of time or if service is first-come, first-served. For guests who still may be wary of dining out — or when your outdoor space reaches capacity — let them know that they can still enjoy all of your delicious favorites at home with pickup and delivery.
Looking for more engaging ways to market your restaurant this summer? Download the 2023 Restaurant Marketing Calendar & Toolkit for our top seasonal tips.