Avoiding Patio Nightmares

A few weeks ago, the temperature spiked from the regular 40 degrees at noon to a beautiful sunny 72, and it was SUNDAY. Without hesitation my brain screamed find a patio!!! I should have known better. Few restaurants are prepared for that first warm Sunday. The tables were dirty, the plants were dead, the food runner didn’t know table numbers and the single server was overwhelmed by 10 tables that constantly needed more alcohol.

For consumers there is nothing better than patio season, for restaurateurs it can be a nightmare. If managed properly, patio season can bring a major increase in revenue and can also create raving fans. Here are some tips for opening your patio painlessly.

Assess and Tidy Up  Everything will need cleaning. I have always been a fan of storing patio furniture somewhere until you are ready to use it. This protects it from the elements and gives you an excuse for not seating tables outside until you are ready. Even if you store it, all tables and chairs will need to be cleaned and some may need to be repaired. If you have outside server stations, make sure that soda, coffee, and iced tea systems are clean and working properly. Pressure wash floors, spot paint walls, and clean windows. If you have landscaping, get rid of dead plants. If you have seasonal planters, clean them out and put in fresh dirt. Before the temperatures are dependable, I like to fill planters with seed packets on sticks to let everyone know a new garden is on the way.

Create Floor Plans & Staff Up  At the end of patio season you should make a list of all the things you plan to do better next year. Check for issues like insufficient walkways between tables, corner tables that are hard to service, or configurations that make it hard to build larger parties. Change up your table layout for the new year, create new floor plans, table numbers, and server stations. Evaluate last year’s staffing and begin to hire up and train before the season begins. This can usually be a methodical progression of adding staff. When the season begins, guests tend to wait for tables outside, leaving tables open indoors and allowing you to shift staff accordingly. You usually have one to two months to get fully staffed before you need to staff all stations indoors. Remember during this ramp up time that patio servers are usually making more money. Be sure to rotate these stations through your service staff. Patio service usually requires servers to cover more distance from guests to the kitchen or the bar. Provide all the support they need with bussers and food runners.

Plan for Fast Weather Changes  Weather is particularly hard to plan for in the spring. Have heaters available at night and fans and umbrellas during the day. Always have a plan for guests to relocate inside if there is sudden rain. Warn guests ahead of time of any potential weather changes. If your patio is enclosed for the winter, do not remove all sides until you are sure temperatures will stay warm. Have a rain drill plan. At the beginning of shifts servers should be assigned rain duties. For example, two may be assigned to help relocate patio diners to indoor tables, while the rest of the team is assigned to rescuing tabletop items like salt and pepper or silver roll ups from the patio tables. Once the rain stops, the entire team should engage in wiping down tables and chairs and resetting tabletops. The work that normally takes 2 people 30 minutes to complete can be done in 5 to 10 minutes by the entire team. Every minute that a patio chair remains empty is lost revenue. When it starts to rain, it definitely does not mean the patio is closed for the day.

Order Supplies  Remember that twice the tables, means twice the supplies. Count silverware, glasses, side plates, sugar caddies, and salt & pepper shakers. Order enough to cover the new tables, wash them, and put them into service. Increased demands for silverware roll ups seem to be one of the hardest adjustments to make. I have always kept a backup lexan of rolled silverware in the office. We try to never use it, but it can be pulled for use in midshaft emergencies. If it is used it has to be replaced at the end of that shift.

Adjust Duties and Practice Set Up  Even if you have opening and closing duties from last year. Make a list of all the things that need to be done and double check the duties to make sure they are all assigned. Simple things like the addition of a rolling cart side station or a change in how table are topped can mean a total rewrite of opening and closing duties. Use seasoned patio servers to help with this process. They will have great ideas about what needs to get done and how to make it happen most efficiently. When supplies and duties are in place, have a training session with the staff to go through opening and closing duties. Schedule an extra opener the first week just to make sure you are set and ready for business. Also remember to train the team on any changes to table numbers, server stations, or POS screens.

Develop Spring Specials  Once you are ready to go, get ready to make money. Patio guests dine differently. They consume more alcohol, they linger longer, and they nibble more. Introduce seasonal cocktails, beers, and appetizers. Offer a variety of sizes that can be enjoyed by individual diners or shared by groups. Pitchers and carafes of cocktails are big movers with the typical patio diner.

Spread the Word  Make sure the world knows you are ready for business and try to be ready before your neighboring competitors. Use your social media to promote your patio’s new look, new hours, and new menu. Post pictures of menu items, guests having a good time, and servers in their spring uniforms. Encourage happy guests to post their pictures as well. Once you advertise you are open, be open every shift. There is nothing worse than eagerly anticipating an afternoon drinking and dining on your favorite patio only to arrive and find that it is not being seated. Turn on the lights, open umbrellas and turn up the music, make it obvious that you are ready for guests.

As restauranteurs accustomed to having to change the plan every 30 minutes, we become comfortable with “winging it”. Getting your patio ready to deliver top quality service and maximum sales is not something you can “wing”. Follow the 7 steps above and every shift will be seamless with no more patio nightmares.

Michael Maxwell – Partner, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting