According to the National Restaurant Association, the U.S. restaurant and food-service industry lost nearly $120 billion in sales during the first three months of the pandemic. Struggling to regain their footing, restaurateurs looked for ways to meet CDC guidelines while maintaining an enjoyable dining experience for guests. With warm weather coming at the time of gradual re-openings, one solution became outdoor dining.
Many cities helped the cause by allowing restaurants to expand into public spaces, even closing off street traffic and adding retaining walls to create temporary “parklets” the size of a street parking space. Restaurant owners re-imagined rooftops and entryways in order to increase their outdoor options.
Even in pre-pandemic days, adding an outdoor space was like posting a billboard to attract customers. Research by VSAG (Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group), an international restaurant and hospitality consulting organization, shows that a new patio or deck can boost restaurant sales by as much as 30 percent. The study found that a $200,000 investment in an outdoor seating area can increase overall sales by $500,000 -- or even more if you offer outdoor dining year-round.
Today, outdoor seating is even more effective at attracting customers and has the added attraction of offering safety and social distancing. Scientists believe that exposure to fresh air limits the coronavirus spread, and the CDC website recommends that in addition to take-out and delivery options, restaurants “prioritize outdoor seating as much as possible.”
How can you create or expand your outdoor dining program? Let’s examine five steps.
1. Find the right space
Since it is not feasible for most restaurants to operate at the 25 or 50 percent capacity needed for re-opening guidelines, some cities have offered help. They have suspended code and permit requirements to allow dining areas in parking lots, city streets, and other non-traditional spaces. Other business owners have transformed alleyways, rooftops, and sidewalks into eating areas. Check with your local government as to what you can and cannot do. You might be surprised at how little red tape exists.
Here are a few examples.
· Cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, and Boston have closed off some streets to vehicles, carving out new areas for outdoor seating.
· The city of West Palm Beach, Florida, provided tables, chairs, umbrellas, trash cans, and hand washing stations for diners.
· Cities such as New York and San Francisco allowed establishments to apply for a free permit to set up tables on public sidewalks, streets, parks, and plazas.
· Revelers Hall in Dallas built “parklets,” outdoor seating spaces in street parking spaces that offer distance from sidewalk pedestrians.
2. Make it attractive and safe
People crave the eating out experience they have been missing during stay-at-home orders, but they want to feel safe. How can you help guests feel they are not taking a health risk?
Following current state and local guidelines is paramount. Space your tables so that six-feet distancing is not a concern. Add clear or colorful dividers or pretty greenery to make the table configuration look less harsh and more inviting.
Require your patrons to wear masks whenever they leave their tables and make sure your staff members wear their masks at all times.
“Eating outside is less risky than eating inside, if everybody is six feet apart and the wait staff are all wearing masks,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, said in a recent CNN interview.
Be scrupulous about disinfecting tables. Plastic menus should be sanitized after each use, and the CDC encourages the use of disposable menus and no-touch payment options. Use hot water and detergent to launder all table linens, plates, glasses, and utensils.
3. Think beyond warm weather
You can extend your outdoor dining season beyond the spring and summer months with some preparation. Here are some ideas.
· Provide heat lamps, fire pits, and fireplaces for cozy evenings. (Check your local fire codes first.)
· Offer freshly-laundered lap blankets.
· Add retractable awnings for weather protection.
· Construct temporary walls, drop-down plastic, or glass panels to block the wind and rain. (Check with your city for any restrictions or guidelines first.)
· Replace metal or wicker summer furniture with wood furniture and add comfortable cushions for added warmth.
· Refresh planters with seasonal flowers and plants.
· Rethink your lighting. As daylight hours dwindle, warmer lighting and candlelight can make your outdoor space more attractive for evening guests.
If your location is warm and humid throughout the year, consider insect control, an outdoor cooling system, and large umbrellas and awnings for shade.
4. Rethink your menu
Just as you have a separate menu for your bar, you can offer items that are exclusive to your outdoor dining area. Feature grilled options that guests tend to associate with outdoor dining, for example, or try a small plate menu that reflects the season. If your establishment has a casual vibe, you could offer a family-style dining concept.
These “alfresco only” specials encourage folks to eat outside. You also could tie in these items with certain holidays, such as Oktoberfest or St. Patrick’s Day, to help create a festive atmosphere.
“We’re hoping to carry this as far into winter as we can go,” Natale Servino, of Servino Ristorante, located on the waterfront in Tiburon, Calif., told Restaurant Business. The family-operated restaurant will offer slow-cooked meats, braises, and warm cocktails to entice guests to eat outside in its newly renovated patio area.
5. Get the word out
Now for a critical part of getting the most out of your new outdoor dining area – promotion. If your outdoor space is not visible from the street, place a sign or sandwich board in front of your restaurant.
Send an email blast and post signs and flyers wherever you can. Think outside the box. Here’s an example. Many folks like the idea of bringing their dog along when they eat outdoors. If your patio is pet-friendly, post news about it on your social media and on sites like bringfido.com.
Instruct your staff to ask guests if they would like to sit outside. Invite them to take a look for next time if they are picking up a take-out order.
Most importantly, feature clear and beautiful photos of your outdoor dining area on all your restaurant social media platforms. People are taking more food and restaurant photos than ever before, but not all of them have the desired effect. Smartphone photos are fine for your guests to post on their personal pages, but you need to convey a professional image for your restaurant and low quality phone images just won't cut it.
Here are some examples of how San Francisco restaurant Pabu Izakaya is doing it right and attracting guests during COVID with professional photography.
A professional photographer knows how to show your space off to its best advantage with the right lighting, angle, and composition. When you hire a professional to take photos of your outdoor eating area, you show your commitment to quality. Your guests will know the high level of service to expect.
To get the best photos, restaurants should use Snappr, the all-in-one solution for restaurant photography. With Snappr, you can select from the largest network of professional photographers who can deliver quality photos of your alfresco spot -- even with as little as two hours of advance notice.
By the way, “al fresco” roughly translates from the Italian to “in the cool air.” However, the term does not mean “outdoor dining” in Italy -- it means “in prison.” Historically, Italy’s prisons were cold places with very thick walls, so when someone was in jail, they literally were “in the cold.”
Don’t leave your restaurant’s patrons or your staff members in the cold. Whether you call it “alfresco dining,” “outdoor patio,” or simply “eating outside,” creating and maintaining this spot is one way to keep your place running as we all adjust to this strange new normal.