First, consider this: Those with a patio, a truly nice patio, have already won. You have a big advantage over competitors who don’t have outdoor seating. Second, you automatically increase the number of customer seats during warm weather. Every additional seat you have outside is a cash register that won’t stop ringing until the bad weather comes. This point was not lost on Sondra Bernstein, who recently renovated the rustic, country French patio at Girl & the Fig in Sonoma, CA. During the renovation, she even went so far as to have a tree removed to open the space and create more seating and more profits.
The family-owned La Calle Doce in Oak Cliff, TX, also recently completed a renovation that significantly increased its patio size. In addition to creating more seats, including built-in wooden booths, it also installed an outside bar window that allows the waitstaff to place orders quickly. The patio, which now seats twice the number of customers, adjoins a back party room. That room now has better access to the patio via new French doors and, as a result, bookings for the party room have increased.
La Calle Doce’s inclusion of a pass-through window from the patio to the bar is clever, but if you’ve got the space, do what The Shannon Rose Irish Pub did in Clifton, NJ. During a recent renovation it include more seating and an outdoor bar.
With a bar dedicated to serving the patio’s 26 tables, drinks not only get to alfresco customers quicker, it removes the burden of the inside bar serving both areas.
Creating more outdoor seating is smart, but what do you do when the chill outdoors is a bit too much for customers? You do what Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak did in Washington, DC—you add gas-fed fire pits. Sitting on a patio can be romantic, but what’s more romantic than sitting outside around the warmth and beauty of a flickering fire? An inviting fire is always nice, and so are some of Bourbon Steak’s special events, including a 300-person “Pork Out” barbecue that’s a huge hit.
You’ll find four fire pits at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey. They sit below a redwood, a palm, an oak and a magnolia tree. This unusual array of trees is enough to separate 1833’s patio from most, but the recent addition of lights that illuminate the trees removed all doubt. Other area restaurant patios have a difficult time competing with this beauty and the creativity of management. Instead of merely having basic table seating, 1833’s patio also features large day beds in one area and a large communal farm table in another. It’s a smart maneuver that caters to a variety of moods.
Campo restaurant in Reno also has lounge-like seating (four couches) in addition to 50 other seats on its outdoor patio. But its patio, like so many others, is much further away from the kitchen than its indoor dining area. To adjust for this distance, it employs handheld ordering systems so servers can take orders quickly and electronically send them to the kitchen. Instead of running back and forth to the kitchen, the handhelds allow servers to stay on the patio to take care of customers.
Another plus about the patio: Live music adds to the overall atmosphere and drawing power of the space.
The idea of creating multiple uses on the patio is also employed at Bangers and Lace in Chicago. It has tables and seating on one side for those who want to dine and highboys and standing room in another area for those who just want to enjoy a craft brew and the warm weather. It’s also done another smart thing: All of the dining room windows overlooking the patio open so those inside feel as if they’re part of the action outside.
Comfort is a vital aspect of any patio. Even during the warm weather months, the heat, the wind and the rain can ruin the entire outdoor experience. Wind was a particular issue at LB Steak in San Jose. A wind tunnel effect was wrecking havoc on diners until management installed glass panels on each end of the patio to block the wind. It also installed an automated awning to protect guests from the sun and rain.
A big part of the action on any patio is the food. But how do you handle the outdoor menu? If your kitchen is big enough to handle the additional seats that arise when the patio is open, you can simply offer the same menu outside. But that’s not how a lot of restaurants with patios do it. Consider, for example, The Water Club, New York City’s iconic restaurant located on the East River in a huge stationary yacht. Its patio, called the Crow’s Nest, is the upper deck, but you won’t find a bar-focused menu like so many other alfresco operations offer. Instead, it chose to serve a smaller version of its core menu. By doing so, it’s not adding more items to its menu to accommodate outside diners. The restaurant also runs special promotions, including its 30 Oysters for $30 in honor of The Water Club’s 30th anniversary.
More outdoor patios from coast to coast
The legendary Rusty Pelican, which has been a fixture in Miami for more than 40 years, is so confident in its kitchen, customers at any one of its 118 outdoor seats can order the full menu. A complete renovation of the entire restaurant, including the outdoor patio, has brought new life to this old standard. But consider what customers see when they’re sitting on the patio: a magnificent view of Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline, along with a constant parade of seaplanes, boats, dolphins and manatees. At night, before customers are seated under a canopy of strung white lights, they must walk past three decorative coolers where bottles of crisp white wine and rosés are perched in ice. It’s not uncommon to see a bottle of wine on every outdoor table, says the Pelican’s Michael Brennan.
If you really want to draw attention to your patio, and you don’t necessarily have the epic views of a Rusty Pelican, consider what Chicago’s Old Town Social does throughout the warm weather months—roast a whole suckling pig on a rotisserie grill in front of the restaurant. The sounds, the smells, the theatrics of the entire spectacle draw customers to the patio for a share of the pork.
Something similar happens at Moxie in Beachwood, OH. Every Friday night during the warm months, chef/owner Jonathan Bennett lines up several Weber grills in front of his restaurant and cooks the night’s special dish, which can range from langoustines to pork ribs. The idea behind it, he says, was to make contact with every guest who walks through the door. And for guests who sit on the adjacent patio, the sights, the sounds and the aromas coming off the grill are hard to resist. From the street, the festive commotion in front of the restaurant also can’t be ignored.
Not far away in neighboring Shaker Heights, Doug Katz at Fire Food & Drink grills right on his patio during lunch every Saturday. Each of his chefs comes up with a patio-friendly ethnic dish that any customer can order. But he’s taken it one step further by selling to-go orders to anyone who walks by the restaurant in this high-traffic area. Katz, who also has a tandoori oven on wheels, says he may even roll that out to the patio to cook Indian specials. Whatever cooking methods he employs, he’s creating a visual marketing event that’s driving incremental sales.
Suckling pigs on rotisseries and tandoori ovens are terrific, but you don’t have to go over the top to draw in customers. The Pub at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco features a $10 bottomless mimosa special that’s available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. The only catch: Customers must purchase an entrée. The lure of inexpensive mimosas packs ’em in.
Proof in Washington, DC, offers a summertime promotion called “War of the Roses.” A rotating selection of rosé wines is available on the patio, with bottles priced at $35. It’s a perfect summer wine, priced perfectly.
At Brennan’s of Houston, customers on its courtyard patio who order an entrée at lunch can sip a 25-cent martini while sitting next to a fountain under the shade of oak trees. If you don’t think a 25-cent martini is a huge come-on, well then . . .
CHAYA Downtown in L.A. creates a Summer Japanese Beer Garden that serves Japanese beer and izakaya-style small plates from Monday through Friday. Part of the promotion also includes a chef grilling skewers on a yakitori grill. Originally, the promotion was held only on Mondays, but its popularity could not be contained to one day.
The Tavern at Lark Creek in Larkspur, CA, also employs a beer garden theme, but one that skews heavily toward the traditions of Germany and Austria. Patio customers sit under towering Redwood trees and are treated to an extensive selection of beers while live music entertains. They’ll also find Chef Aaron Wright there grilling classic German/Austrian fare, including mussels with garlic fries and crispy herb spaetzle.
The team at Campo in Reno is in the process of installing a Prosecco bar on its patio. They will be serving patio customers bellinis with housemade seasonal ingredients.
As in every case above, having an outdoor space is a huge plus for any restaurant operator. But in most parts of the country, an outdoor patio is open only part of the year, so do whatever you can to profit from every inch of space.
Don't allow pests on your patio
Nothing can spoil an alfresco experience quicker than flies, mosquitoes and other pests invading the space. Here are 10 tips from Frank Meek of Orkin to keep your customers comfortable outside.
1. Cover all trash cans with tightly sealed lids to prevent odors that can attract flies, which can carry more than 100 pathogens and transmit bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella every time they land.
2. Clear customer plates as quickly as possible, as the leftover food can serve as an open invitation for flies.
3. Replace outdoor fluorescent lights with sodium vapor bulbs. Flies are less attracted to sodium vapor lighting.
4. Clean up any rain puddles as soon as possible. Mosquitoes only need a thimble full of water in which to breed.
5. Work with a pest management professional to assess any decorative water features and determine the need for mosquito-eating fish to eliminate mosquito larvae, or other preventative steps.
6. Avoid planting brightly colored or fragrant flowers and trees that can attract stinging pests, and cut back bushes and branches near the patio where mosquitoes may hide when not in flight.
7. Choose umbrellas, awnings and other outdoor décor with dark or neutral colors to further discourage stinging pests. Since reactions to stings can vary from an infection at the site of the sting to severe or deadly allergic reactions, these precautions are important for your guests’ comfort and safety.
8. Pressure wash your patio or deck each night to remove any crumbs or debris that collect throughout the day to prevent cockroaches and ants from coming in search of a midnight snack.
9. Cut down grassy areas and remove any mulch surrounding the patio area where ant nests or mounds may be found.
10. Keep doors to the patio closed when not in use, and install door sweeps and weather stripping to deter pests that may migrate inside your restaurant through these potential entry points.
Frank Meek is international technical and training director for Orkin. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.orkincommerical.com.