There’s no better recipe for outdoor restaurant dining than sunny and 70. That combination can turn any patio into a hot spot. And, because a patio can potentially double your seating capacity and test the capabilities of your staff and kitchen, planning ahead is important. Before you open the door to open-air service, consider these 10 points to promote success:
1. Choose a leader. The patio becomes a separate dining room, so one person should be in charge. Assigning a leader cuts confusion for your staff and provides accountability.
2. Hire early. If you’re hiring seasonal help, college students are a good option. Just remember that everyone else is hiring, too. The key is to know when you plan to open and what roles you need to fill. Start hiring four months ahead, and plan to cross-train so your staff is flexible on days when bad weather closes the patio.
3. Plan a special menu. A patio increases guest seating, but your kitchen doesn’t increase to accommodate the additional output. To address this, engineer a patio menu that makes execution feasible for your back-of-house staff without compromising your quality or brand.
A smaller outdoor menu is one way to go. It offers an opportunity to feature more-profitable items, steering guests to those options that are easy to handle in the kitchen and easy to transport to the outdoor tables.
4. Stay several steps ahead. Remember that a successful season begins on the last day of the previous season. Solicit feedback from staffers who were in the trenches last year to find out what you can improve upon.
From there, approach the preparation in an organized fashion by dividing it into three phases:
- Equipment — Are your power outlets up to code? Do you have enough tray jacks? Is your ice maker equipped to keep up? Do you need a special outdoor grill? Did the weather cause damage that needs repairs? Attend to these details weeks, if not months, in advance.
- Inspection — Well before the opening date, invite an inspector out to look. “You’re going to get inspected at some point,” Owens reminds operators. “Being proactive creates a working relationship that helps you in the long run.”
- Furniture — Get tables, chairs, umbrellas, etc., out of storage. Repair, replace, power wash and sanitize well ahead of opening time.
5. Make an impression. Most guests see the patio as they walk up to the restaurant, so it needs to work as an ambassador for your brand. Also keep in mind that people will want to take photos and share them on social media, so the patio needs to be appealing. Don’t shy away from bringing a little style to it.
Dark or neutral colors are ideal because bright shades attract bees and wasps. It’s also a good idea to use the same tableware and utensils as the indoor dining area. If you go with separate styles of plates and glassware, you add a layer of what-goes-where tracking you don’t need.
6. Think about shade. Sun-drenched concrete next to a brick wall creates an oven effect. Umbrellas or awnings offer shade, but they don’t always cut the heat. Trees, plants and tall grasses absorb the heat and create a park-like feel. They do require maintenance, but the appearance and cooling effect is a plus.
7. Conduct a tech checkup. Taking technology outdoors has challenges. Make sure that electrical and POS components are enclosed so they can withstand weather exposure. You also want to make sure your menu is properly programmed into the system if it’s different from the main menu. In addition, you need to check your printers, screens and other hardware. And don’t overlook the need to have adequate bandwidth and signal strength to handle wireless demand.
8. Build excitement with marketing. The weather will have the final say on the exact day your patio opens, but you can still stoke anticipation. Signs, table tents and chalkboards can announce your special patio plans and menu items. Try out some of the menu items in your main dining room during February or March, and let customers know the food will be part of your patio menu. Customer reaction will tell you a lot about popularity, plus you’ll give the kitchen a test run on execution.
A week or so before the planned opening, host a soft opening or an event. Try live entertainment a few evenings or a weeklong outdoor happy hour to introduce the patio atmosphere. Or try something low-key, such as a charity event or a salute to the local fire department, as long as it fits your approach to community involvement.
9. Get social. Update your social media accounts with patio plans and event schedules. Avoid telling customers what they already know—you’re open and you have food. Go the extra mile and entice them to come over by playing on their senses and inviting them to join the fun. A post or tweet like “The sun is shining and the margaritas are cold—you should be here,” will be much more effective than, “Stop by for good food.” And drive the point home with pictures of people having a good time.
10. Tend to the little things. Patio dining comes with a lot of moving parts. In addition to the preparation and training, the ultimate focus needs to be on customer satisfaction. A spilled drink that’s not properly cleaned up will attract bugs and spoil the experience. And so will things like bird droppings on a seat. Remind your staff to keep an eye on the details. Being attentive is just as much to their benefit as it is your guests, because it could equate to better tips.
All in all, perfecting your patio before it’s grand opening can help set up you up for a successful outdoor season, one we hope you and your guests enjoy.
Thanks to the following Gordon Food Service experts for providing these tips:
Doug Owens, Commercial Success Manager
Kelley Lenahan, Business Solutions Specialist, Atlanta area
Freddy Shier Jr., Business Solutions Specialist, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Andrew Ely, Business Solutions Specialist, Central Illinois
Jim Milliman, Business Solutions Specialist, Nashville, Tennessee