Business and Operations
By Andrew Hind
Outdoor dining can bring positive energy, a connection with your community and a return on investment for your pizzeria
By Andrew Hind
Patio season is fast approaching, and for pizzerias and Italian restaurants struggling under the continuing COVID-19 pandemic it’s none too soon.
Traditionally, many restaurants have eagerly embraced patios. And for good reason. “The essence of an outdoor dining option has always been a driver of foot traffic,” explains Doug Radkey, president and project manager of KRG Hospitality Inc. “While not every venue has the setup or capacity to execute an outdoor dining program, the ones that have an opportunity to do so must look at this as a must-have investment. There is tremendous value in offering an outdoor dining option as they often bring positive energy, conversations and a desired connection with your community. The return on investment will always be there, if executed properly.”
In the last year, many more restaurants have jumped on board the patio bandwagon, viewing them as an economic lifeline in an era of limits on indoor dining and social distancing. “This [the implementation of patios] is expected to increase twofold as we continue to navigate the pandemic and the successful recovery of this industry,” Radkey says.
The data bears out the importance of patios moving forward, says Roberto Sarjoo of Restaurants Canada. “Our Angus Reid survey conducted Sept. 17-18, 2020, found that 76 per cent of Canadians were comfortable eating on a patio/outdoors for a full-service restaurant, and 66 per cent felt comfortable eating on a fast-food patio. Only 49 per cent said they would feel comfortable eating indoors,” he explains. “From our most recent Chef Survey, 27 per cent of respondents upgraded their patio by adding overhead covering, patio heaters and additional seating,” this last point a clear sign they viewed patios as more than a single-season expediency.
In 2020 The City of Toronto launched CafeTO, a program designed to provide help to restaurants, bars and cafés suffering from revenue losses brought on by COVID-19 by allowing restaurant owners to make patio space in curb lanes and along city sidewalks (many municipalities across Canada unveiled similar programs). The city conducted a survey of 2,800 respondents consisting of restaurant owners and members of the public. The results showed that 95 per cent of respondents want to see CafeTO in 2021, 90 per cent said they were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their patio experience, and perhaps more critically, 66 per cent of operators said their restaurant wouldn’t have survived without CafeTO. Unsurprisingly, CafeTO will return in 2021.
Whether your patio is temporary or intended to be a permanent fixture, having a successful patio takes planning. Naturally you want to be ready to take full advantage when the good weather hits, so that means a lot of advance planning.
It’s not enough to put up a barrier and throw out tables and chairs. You need to be as thoughtful when designing a patio as you would your restaurant’s interior. Success depends upon it.
“Comfort and safety are always crucial elements to a successful outdoor dining program. You want to ensure you have temperature control, pest control and noise control within your patio. If you’re near to a street – ensure you have safety barriers that will protect your patio. These are all things that could have a negative impact on your guests’ experience and the perception of your brand,” Radkey explains. “Look for solutions to keep it warm during colder weather or to shade it when the sun is at its peak. Find solutions to block wind and prevent heavy rain from ruining a potentially profitable day or night on the patio. Take the time to meet with your pest control vendor and discuss your plans for outside. They can suggest safe bug repellents and means of keeping away other animals and critters like mice, squirrels and even birds.”
Noise – in the form of vehicle traffic, construction and other background sound – is often an issue with patios. You want to mitigate it using fencing, vertical screens of wood or glass, or plantings (which have the added benefits of offering protection from wind and providing some privacy). A good sound system is also part of a comprehensive noise reduction strategy.
The bar has been raised when it comes to what customers find acceptable in patio furniture. Cheap white plastic chairs will no longer cut it. When selecting outdoor furniture, bear in mind that the elements will inevitably take their toll. Synthetics are better than wood, which tends to be high maintenance.
Lighting is another important consideration, as you need to provide enough lighting to ensure safety and comfort. Installing additional lights on exterior walls provides reflected illumination, which is easier on the eyes than direct light. LED string lights or lighting within trees add both illumination and ambience.
If you have a patio, you should embrace nature in some form – no one wants to be surrounded entirely by asphalt or concrete. Plants have a way of softening these harsh environments. Is there an opportunity to plant small trees or shrubs? If so, select evergreens that will look good throughout the years and provide much-needed shade, privacy and shelter. Plant climbing vines along trellises. Add large containers to create height and break up sightlines. Select plants that are low maintenance (so you don’t have to incur the additional costs of hired landscapers) and ones that are hardy (so you won’t have to replace those that die).
“The number one best practice is to ensure you’re delivering an experience,” Radkey says. “To do that, outside of providing a safe, comfortable, and energetic atmosphere, you need to also review your menu options (consider creating unique outdoor food and beverage menus), your labour needs (depending on the size of the patio you may need additional staff to handle the extra covers; customer service and work in the kitchen should not be hindered by the fact additional seating is now offered), and your flow of service from reservations, to ordering processes to payment processes. You need to review the entire guest journey to ensure you’re delivering a seamless, memorable experience. The restaurants and bars that provide the right mix of planning and energy are the ones that will attract a consistent level of guests throughout the patio season.”
Plan for the traditional patio season to extend well into the cooler months, Sarjoo recommends. “47 per cent of those who responded to our Angus Reid poll said that ‘patio season’ will likely be permanently extended well into the fall/early winter each year.”
“Just thinking that putting out some tables, chairs, and umbrellas or patio heaters will be enough is the downfall of a successful outdoor dining program,” Radkey says. “This past winter, for example, too many venues expected guests to just sit down and enjoy a meal like normal by putting out some patio heaters. That didn’t work. You also cannot expect staff to go in and out of the cold all day long serving food and drink. That is not feasible. You have to create an actual outdoor experience first – that is what will drive awareness, revenue and repeat business.”
In the best of times, patios are a driver of business for any restaurant. In the era of COVID-19, they may represent the difference between life and death. You don’t need to go all in, but you should be in the game.
Andrew Hind is a freelance writer from Bradford, Ont., specializing in food, history and travel. He is the author of 25 books and the proud father of one.