Outdoor dining

The pandemic may be winding down but outdoor dining is ramping up

6 min read

Outdoor dining

The pandemic may be winding down but outdoor dining is ramping up

6 min read

According to OpenTable’s latest diner survey, Americans are ready to get back to restaurants. As of February, 31% of diners had already gone back to their pre-pandemic dining-out habits, and another 33% say they’ll be ready this spring or summer. That’s about two-thirds of diners getting back to normal. And 82% of diners want restaurants to continue to increase outdoor seating in 2021. As people return to restaurants, they are embracing outdoor dining more enthusiastically than ever before.

We asked restaurateurs from coast to coast how they’ve adapted to the new alfresco normal. Try their best tips to increase your own success with outdoor dining this spring, summer, and beyond.

1. Take advantage of relaxed permitting

From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, U.S. cities have relaxed and streamlined the processes for getting outdoor dining permits. Johan Botma of Sfoglia applied for New York City’s Open Streets program, which allows restaurants to apply online and self-certify to temporarily expand their outdoor seating. He applied on a Friday, was quickly approved, and started serving tables outside the following Monday.

In other cities, like San Francisco, restaurants have closed streets to traffic to make way for outdoor dining. Even if your sidewalk space is limited, check your local regulations to see what’s possible. And if you want to make the temporary relaxation of permitting a permanent thing, take a few moments to call your local lawmakers—and encourage your guests who enjoy outdoor dining to do the same.

2. Start slow, then grow

Last summer, before New York reached Phase 2 of reopening, Sfoglia was open only for takeout and delivery. The team placed a few tables outside the restaurant for people to enjoy their to-go meals. When they were allowed to begin table service outside in June of 2020, that seating area grew to eight tables. After an overwhelmingly positive response from guests, Botma hired his cousin, a contractor, to build a deck. Today, they serve 17 tables outside. “We are making adjustments by the moment,” Botma says.

If you’ve been slow to start or expand your outdoor dining area, it’s definitely not too late. Remember, the vast majority of diners OpenTable surveyed want more outside seating for the foreseeable future. The alfresco dining boom isn’t going anywhere, and there’s plenty of time to cash in on it.

4. Embrace your surroundings

At 50% capacity or less, Houston’s B.B. Lemon could only seat about 12 inside the restaurant. But just outside there was a 1,500 square-foot yard lined with trees and a fence. To use this ample and attractive space, the team bought cabanas and decked them out with private tables and twinkling lights, creating a luxurious, resort-like atmosphere.

“It’s almost like a garden party every night, with spacing for tables,” says founder Benjamin Berg. “If they are all full, we can seat more than 80 people, and everybody is still 10 feet away from each other. You don’t feel like you’re in a restaurant in the middle of a city.”

San Francisco’s The Vault had similar untapped outdoor resources, according to partner Ryan Cole. The restaurant sits in a building that occupies a whole city block—including a massive plaza. While The Vault was closed, Cole’s team built an entirely new restaurant in a section of the plaza, showcasing the space’s bamboo garden: The Vault Garden.

“We didn’t have to physically pivot the space to accommodate the guidelines,” says Cole. “Our partnership with the building allows it because it’s a great use of the space.”

4. Heed safety and distancing guidelines

Whether indoor, outdoor, or to-go, safety regulations remain a top priority for any dining experience. In fact, more than 70% of diners call COVID safety measures extremely or highly important. And 74% see outdoor dining as low risk, so it’s no surprise it remains popular even as dining rooms reopen. Even outside, you’ll need to factor distancing and sanitation protocols into any decisions you make about table layouts and steps of service.

Cole enlisted a designer’s help from the start to map out a floor plan for The Vault Garden, making sure the materials and layout complied with safety codes. Botma’s construction team did the same for Sfoglia’s deck. Each restaurant insists on a “bubble” between tables to avoid any unwanted or unnecessary contact between guests and staff.

5. Set expectations with guests upfront

“We designed our restaurant to make it as safe as humanly possible,” says Cole. “You should come and expect rules for your own benefit.”

In outdoor spaces, guests may not know when to wear a mask, how to move around, or what to expect generally. You have to tell them. Hosts at The Vault Garden give each guest who enters a menu and an information card that details exactly how the process will work and what everyone needs to do to remain safe. Consider the protocols a two-way street, and don’t be shy about over-communicating with guests.

6. Invest wisely in outdoor décor

The aftermath of a financial crisis is hardly the time to buy new décor. Botma notes that his outdoor space at Sfoglia was built on a “nonexistent budget.” But any investments you make in extra seating will likely pay off in additional sales.

Out of desperation, Botma initially pulled his vintage wood dining room tables outside. Those aren’t weather-proof, so he eventually landed at Home Depot, where he shopped for lights, extension cords, and tables. After digging at multiple locations, he found enough gorgeous matching mosaic tables to build a cohesive seating area without breaking the bank.

Berg used a simple ROI calculator when planning B.B. Lemon’s outdoor spaces. Though the cabanas, tables, and solar-powered lights required a significant investment upfront, he says, “we could pay for it in one day” of outdoor service.

For colder or rainy weather, consider buying patio heaters as well as umbrellas or retractable coverings. “We have shoveled snow, lit the fire, turned on the heaters, and sat guests at outside tables in winter—they loved it!” says Allison Cullen, director of marketing at Harvest in Cambridge outside of Boston. “It was a fun experience for them and allowed us to use the space when we normally wouldn’t be able to.”

7. Create an atmosphere that reflects your brand

Of course, not just any tables and chairs will do—a successful outdoor experience should feel like an extension of your dining room. “Think about the whole package,” Berg advises. “Make it something that’s desirable, where people really want to be—not just where they’re forced to be because they feel it’s safer.” Two guests have proposed marriage at B.B. Lemon since they installed the cabanas, which is unprecedented for the restaurant.

Botma bought blue umbrellas to match his outdoor tables, creating a “colorful oasis at night,” he says. San Francisco summers rival winters in the rest of the country, so The Vault Garden offers single-use blankets and disposable heat packs to make people more comfortable outside. Think about the whole experience and what you can do to make it feel cozy and special.

8. Extend your floor plan outside

While dining rooms were closed, more restaurants began offering reservations for outdoor tables. In OpenTable, you can categorize existing tables as outdoor, add new outdoor tables to your existing floor plan, or create an entirely new plan for your outdoor seating. Here’s how.

By carefully managing your tables outdoors, you can more accurately adjust your reservation availability. Plus, outdoor reservations provide more predictability around how many guests you’ll seat, so you can order accurately and avoid both waste and unexpected crowds. You can even do more turns during a service by keeping every table status up to date.

9. Adjust your food and drink menu

If you are just starting or expanding your outdoor dining, consider scaling down your food menu until you’re used to those added seats. For Botma, a limited menu allowed Sfoglia to reduce waste. Weather can be a factor, too—seasonal, summery dishes like salads and semifreddo desserts are easy to execute with limited staff and taste perfect alfresco.

10. Get the word out

If you’ve created a new or expanded outdoor seating area, your pre-pandemic regulars might not know it’s there. Post photos of your new spaces and menus on your social media channels and other online profiles (including your OpenTable photo gallery) to show people what they can expect from the experience.

Lean on other neighborhood resources, too. Botma contacted local forums, businesses, and radio programs in his area to build buzz about Sfoglia’s setup, which was just listed among the city’s best outdoor dining options in the New York Post. “Phenomenal exposure,” he says.

When The Vault Garden opened, Cole hired a PR firm and invested in paid marketing. “In the long run, we need to fill hundreds of seats a day,” he says.

It’s clear that diners are clamoring for outdoor tables, and it seems likely patio, deck, sidewalk, and garden reservations will be a hot ticket for a long time to come. These strategies have worked for many restaurants during the past year and you can use them to help your business capitalize on the outdoor dining craze, too.