Summer is calling and if you offer outside seating, otherwise known as Al Fresco dining, sun-loving guests will come.
Not everyone has the luxury of operating a restaurant in a climate suited for year-round outdoor dining. For those restaurants who have to make the most of the warm summer months, offering al fresco dining options is one sure way to entice guests to give your restaurant a try… or to get those loyal regulars back over and over.
Maybe you have a great back restaurant patio or just enough space to squeeze in some sidewalk cafe tables, whatever the case, summer is an excellent opportunity to up your table tops and attract new customers with something special. But you’ve got to have a plan to let people know about your outdoor dining and what makes it special.
Here are our best tips for attracting new guests to try your outside seating this summer.
1. Restaurant Promotions! Shout it from the mountain tops
Seems basic, right? But you’ve got to let people know about your outdoor seating if you want them to come give it a try. Mentioning it specifically on your restaurant social media profiles such as Facebook, Yelp, or OpenTable pages is a good place to start. You can also include it in your newsletter, your latest ad (online or off), or with signage in and around your restaurant.
Make your outdoor spaces come to life by posting pictures to entice curious diners even more.
2. Make outside seating special
Guests love new experiences and a special seasonal seating section is the perfect opportunity to deliver. Offering a special “patio” menu for your outdoor seating might drive home the novelty of this new offering. Feature grilled options that guests equate with their own at-home outdoor summer dining, promote more casual dining experiences with family-style dining or small plate menu concepts, promote seasonal dishes to go along with your seasonal seating and highlight them on your menu.
Plan to be open on or around the 4th of July? Create a special outdoor-only dessert complete with a sparkler topper!
3. Dogs Welcome!
Unfortunately, most dog owners have to choose between bringing their dogs or dining out. In the summer, those two wonderful things can go hand in hand. If your restaurant is in a high foot traffic area and you see dog owners walking their pets outside your restaurant try putting out water bowls and leash ties to signify that your sidewalk or patio is pet-friendly.
Not sure if inviting canine friends in is the right move for your business? Test the waters with a lunch-only policy to start before inviting guests to bring dogs during your busiest service.
4. Can’t offer outdoor seating, make it outdoor to go!
Not everyone has the right location or square footage to offer outdoor seating, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get in on the outdoor dining game. Offer a “picnic basket” to go and encourage diners to find their own outdoor venue at a nearby park, the beach, or their own backyard. Summer concert series and other outdoor events are a great way to promote your “take-away” options and piggy-back on events already attracting a crowd.
Follow the lead of these LA restaurants promoting their Hollywood Bowl baskets on Yelp and check out the schedule of summer events in your neck of the woods then plan your “picnic basket” promotions to coincide with the next special event near you.
Watch social media for special event promotions near you and promote your “take away” options using the hashtags (#) already associated with the event.
5. Outdoors isn’t for everyone.
While the summer sun is a big draw for some customers, others are looking to soak up some body temperature dropping AC in the steamy summer months. So make sure you’re keeping your dining room cool and providing just as special of an experience inside as you are out.
Remember: Adding outdoor seating to your restaurant could bring you a 30% increase in revenue. If you have the space to accommodate it, there’s no reason not to offer it. Not sure if you’re quite ready yet?
Use this checklist to decide if your restaurant is ready for Al Fresco dining.
Before you dive into Al Fresco dining, you need to consider…
Your local laws
Before you make any investment in furniture, staff or equipment, check to see if you need any special licenses or permits or if there are any particular guidelines you need to adhere to. Remember to consider everything, like if you want to serve alcohol outside, or If you want your outdoor area to also be pet-friendly. Your city may require special permission for special circumstances.
The tables added for outdoor dining are usually the farthest from the kitchen, and can easily be overlooked by the waitstaff. Be sure to add staff to accommodate the extra tables, and consider having some staff, such as food runners, specifically tasked only for the outdoor tables. Don’t forget the kitchen, the added tables will hopefully mean more orders to cook, and may require additional line cooks to whip all these additional orders.
If your outdoor area is in the back or out of view of the sidewalk, be sure you let people know it’s open. Put a sign or sandwich board in front of your restaurant, and post some photos on your social media platforms showing people what they can expect.
Adjusting the menu
Alfresco dining can add a whole new element to the dining experience, so design a menu that reflects that. Consider offering lighter fare items good for hot nights, patio drink specials, or items directly from an on-site garden.
When designing your outdoor area, be sure to stay on the brand so that this additional dining space still feels like part of your restaurant. Don’t forget that the furniture will go through more wear and tear with the addition of natural elements, so pick appropriate furniture. Don’t forget temperature control. Consider adding heat lamps or fire pits for cooler summer nights and early fall, and umbrellas or an awning to help keep the sun out of people’s eyes, and keep them dry from a passing shower.
Now that you know you’re ready for Al Fresco dining, what better time to review the unwritten (until now) rules your guests have come to count on when it comes to outdoor dining…
1. Keep it safe.
You want to be remembered for the meal you serve and the conversations around your table, not for Gramma tripping over the gaps in the flagstones. Make sure all ground is even, pathways are wide enough for server and customer traffic and run any necessary electrical cords out of sight and in accordance with all safety precautions.
2. No bugs, unless they’re mudbugs.*
*Mudbugs are crawfish and considered a tradition, if not a delicacy, in some parts.
Perhaps we should say here, “No bugs, unless they’re escargot.” But you get the picture, keep your pest control bill paid in full. Mosquitos are unwanted dinner guests in any climate.
3. Keep it cool.
Unless you’re someplace where it’s cool, consider measures to keep your guests warm and cozy while they enjoy your fare in the great outdoors. So, whether it’s electric heaters or fans and misters, give your guests a place to get away from whatever’s going on with the weather.
4. Keep it covered.
Sometimes it rains sideways. You want the bridesmaids from the bachelorette party to remember their soiree on your patio not somebody else’s. You were their first choice, and you had an awning with clear plastic walls that roll down and velcro in place.
If you can’t protect patrons from the rain, we suggest having extra seating indoors and at the bar so that the festivities can move, not melt.
5. More on weatherproofing.
Take care when choosing your materials that they may last several seasons. Moreover, no waffle butt. It’s short skirt and flirty dress weather. No woman, or man, wants an imprint across the backs of their legs because somebody made a silly choice in chairs. We’re just saying.
6. Keep it covered, the sequel. Umbrellas.
The proper use and placement of umbrellas can’t be overstated and could fall under safety or weatherproofing above, but we’re giving them their very own rule. If your outdoor space is without a roof, you may want to employ umbrellas, but make sure they are heavily weighted on the bottom so that they don’t succumb to gusts of wind. Train your wait staff to be attentive to passing weather and customer preferences.
Wait staff should open and close the umbrellas safely; don’t let your guests get frustrated waiting for assistance until they decide to monkey with the mechanism. Feel free to use branded umbrellas of your favorite south-of-the-border beer bottler only if it matches your motif.
7. In the mood? For some ambiance, that is.
Don’t switch styles just because you’ve crossed a threshold. Carry the indoors out. If you dim the house lights at 6:30, light the outdoor candles at 6:30 too, even if the sun is still high on the horizon. If you’re a cozy Italian bistro inside, be a cozy Italian bistro outside, even if you don’t have the view this guy has.
8. Humming and strumming. Keep them entertained.
We can’t all have singing gondoliers paddling by. But perhaps a strolling violinist — there’s always some joker who will ask for The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Maybe weekend belly dance shows at the Lebanese buffet or a string quartet on Fridays at the tapas bar and mariachis at the Mexican restaurant. Live bands work well in outdoor spaces at night and really seem interwoven with summer memories.
9. Let’s give them something to talk about. The scenery, that is.
Here’s the story of three restaurants with three different views on this matter, so to speak. We can’t wait to explore each of these compelling perspectives.
Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, California, listed in OpenTable’s Top 100, has a stunning overlook of the wine country.
But you may not be located in wine country, so few of us are. You can still create a romantic oasis in the city with crisp linens and greenery, tidy landscaping and flowery centerpieces, like Cafe Amelie in New Orleans, Louisiana, also listed in this year’s OpenTable Top 100.
Then again, you may not have a courtyard space at your back step, so don’t underestimate the scenery of people watching, like Found, the new American bistro in Evanston, Illinois, listed as one of Chicago Magazine’s best new restaurants for 2013.
10. From scenery to greenery… and other prettiness.
As you know about good customer service, the little extras go the extra mile to keep customer returning and telling their friends. So, keep your potted plants watered, and your landscaped plots weeded. Keep your flowers fresh in their vases.
Remember, strands of twinkling lights and flickering candles at night look romantic, especially after we’ve had a few, but they can be hazardous too, especially after we’ve have had a few. Huh? Did we already say that?
So, observe all precautions with candles, lighting, extinguishing, bracing, and placement. Also, Christmas lights run across a white wall just look goofy in the daytime; wrap them along dark structures for camouflage.
11. And, finally, the romance. And by that, we mean your liquor license.
According to one recent online survey by the Indiana Gazette, most of us are in favor of allowing adult beverages to be enjoyed al fresco. In opposition, sixteen percent think the city police already has enough on their hands and ten percent are opposed to enjoying alcohol on any grounds, including moral. For the record, I’m cool with it. Margaritas on the water at Lola’s? I’m there.
If you haven’t already, check with your local authorities and make sure you are following the letter of the liquor laws. We don’t want anybody getting sideways, so to speak.
Follow these simple, now-written rules to successful seating and eating outdoors for a summer full of good times, full bellies, happy families, and return visits. And, let us know what you would add to the list.