Marcus Mitchell – Project Manager, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
Who doesn’t love to be outside in beautiful weather with an ice-cold drink in one hand, and a fork full of incredible food in the other? Throw in some good friends and great ambiance, what could be better? With spring now in full bloom, and summer right around the corner, the desire to dine alfresco in an inviting environment is almost instinctual. Everywhere you look you see neighborhood pools, and rooftop bars, and restaurant patios full of happy people wanting to spend their time taking in the sunshine and good vibes.
From an operational view, owners might see this as a no brainer: patios and rooftops = profits, but there’s a lot that goes into creating an outdoor dining experience that will make money. Many new restaurateurs think that all they need is an open outdoor space, some tables and chairs, maybe a few TVs, some food and cocktails and…boom, success! While this can be a recipe for success, there is a lot more to consider before deciding to serve guests outside.
Customers love the option to choose whether they want to sit inside or out on a beautiful day and if your restaurant has the ability to provide that, then you should. However, just because you have outside seating does not mean that you will be a success. If you depend on your outdoor space as your bread and butter, and you have a rainy season or when the cold weather sets in, your success as a profitable restaurant could be compromised. Your best bet is to distribute your seating between inside and out so you can still bring in business when the weather isn’t all that great.
If you do make the choice to go for an outside option for your concept, you should decide on some type of overhead coverage for that area, as you don’t want your customers frying in the sun or running for cover inside your already-full restaurant at the first sprinkling of rain. Consider some sort of awning, complete roof coverage, or at the very least, umbrellas. While the beautiful weather is usually the the draw for outside dining, it can also be a detriment on a super-hot summer day when your guests can’t escape the glare of the sun.
Your volume times will depend on your location as well as the venue itself, and several other factors could come into play, but there are usually some standards that can help you be better prepared to know how to best take advantage of your area and be prepared for busy times.
- Know the weather – As the owner or manager of an outdoor space you are now an amateur meteorologist. Download a couple of weather apps on your phone to help you better prepare for the day. You will need to know when it’s going to rain, and how windy it will be at any given time, as well as the temps throughout the day.
- Know your audience – Customer demographics will help guide you as well when it comes to operating your space. Are your customers more likely to drink adult beverages and do less eating, or is your food the main draw?
- Know your space – Do you have an outdoor space with a covered roof, or do you have a rooftop bar with no shade? Are you a more lunch heavy business, or do you do more of your volume at night? Is the space easy to get to (just open the door and you’re there) or do you have to travel up and down several flights of stairs to get there?
- Consider your staff – If you have several employees scheduled to work on the roof top, and then it rains, those folks won’t make any money that day, which can be stressful for your team. Try to alternate outside and inside shifts for them so if the weather is a factor, they will still earn.
- Plan for the worst – I remember times when my rooftop bar would be full of happy people eating, drinking, and laughing when a pop-up shower would downpour all over their good time. You will have to manage the potential chaos from displaced guests running for shelter, only to come into a packed downstairs dining room with nowhere to sit, and most of them wanting replacement food and/or beverages.
Managing an outside venue doesn’t have to be crazy. With a little planning, forecasting, savvy scheduling and a backup plan, managing al fresco dining can be a winner for everyone. Just think it through before you take the plunge – most of the time the water’s fine!