When the stars align for outdoor dining, nothing is more glorious. People love dining alfresco on a sunny, mild day when there’s a perfect breeze—enough to keep them cool but not so much that the napkins go flying. And for restaurateurs, outdoor seating is a major moneymaker, sometimes doubling or even tripling the number of guests you can seat. But outdoor dining isn’t all happy guests and ringing cash registers. It brings many tough challenges, especially when it comes to the weather.
Having a plan to deal with mother nature is a must to make outdoor dining a successful part of your restaurant. Here’s how three restaurateurs in different parts of the country make it work for them.
New England is one of the most unpredictable weather regions in the country. In fact, the running joke there is, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.” New Englanders typically put up with a bone-chilling winter and crave alfresco dining when the warm weather hits (and by warm, we mean 40 degrees in May).
Patrick Lee, owner of Grafton Group Hospitality, is the king of patio dining in the region. He manages six outdoor patios at his restaurants, including five in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (Grafton Street, Temple Bar, Russell House Tavern, PARK Restaurant & Bar, The Hourly Oyster House) and State Street Provisions in Boston. Each restaurant has its own personality and serves sophisticated, approachable New American food and craft cocktails—with a side of fresh air.
Of course, outdoor seating areas in such a changeable climate can lead to challenges when a storm blows in or the mercury suddenly tumbles. Still, Lee operates with a glass-half-full attitude.
“At Grafton Group, we choose to look at the weather optimistically; an overcast and stormy day can quickly turn into a mild pleasant evening,” says Lee. “Our guests love to dine alfresco, so we are very aggressive in keeping our patios available, and we are quick to re-open them when weather permits. When possible, we give our guests overhead shelter on our patios.”
The type of shelter each restaurant can offer depends on the patio setup, says Lee. “At certain locations, we use umbrellas, and in others, we have additional shelter thanks to the structure of the surrounding buildings.” For example, the neighboring buildings at Russell House Tavern “happen to be angled in a way that creates a natural covering over the patio,” says Lee. Each of his restaurants’ patios is also equipped with heaters, “which are very beneficial to us, especially in shoulder seasons.”
Guests tend to eat a bit lighter on the patios, says Lee, “so we end up serving more salads and lighter wine. We also see that guests on the patios have quicker turn times, so they generally like to eat and then continue on with their day.”
Summer in New York City means patio season. It’s a favorite see-and-be-seen experience—sipping a glass of rosé and watching scenes of Manhattan pass by. Del Frisco’s Grille Brookfield Place also has One World Trade as the backdrop for its seasonal 68-seat patio.
Here, too, the weather is always a factor, says general manager Sherwin Levitis. “Is it going to rain, will it stop, when will we be able to reopen?” Sometimes the guests order food and then it starts raining. “What do we do then?” he asks.
Over the years, the restaurant has refined its strategies for keeping the weather from creating chaos. “We generally look a week out to gauge forecast and then a few days out to solidify—we always have on-call shifts ready for the week, in case things clear up,” says Levitis. “If it starts raining and we can move a server so they can have a new station inside, we definitely will.”
Levitis says the restaurant deals with inclement weather on a case-by-case basis, depending on how busy things are inside. “We are always looking for different ways to ensure the guest is taken care of,” he says.
The restaurant does use patio heaters during the colder weather months “but they are only available at our tables that have a canopy. Typically, everyone always wants to sit there anyway so it ends up working perfectly.”
Popular al fresco menu items are entrée salads, such as the kale and Brussels sprouts salad and the steakhouse salad. “We tend to also see an uptick in rosé-by-the-glass sales,” says Levitis. Another big seller is the Grille’s signature VIP Martini—vodka infused with pineapple for 14 days and then squeezed through a cheesecloth and shaken over ice. “A refreshing option during the dog days of a New York City summer,” says Levitis.
The Irish are no strangers to moody weather, and the outdoor patio at Celtic Crossing in Memphis, Tennessee, is the place in town to raise a pint of Guinness or to enjoy a flight of rare Irish whiskey, as well as corned beef sliders and shepherd’s pie. The restaurant is well equipped to deal with whatever the weather may bring with both covered and uncovered outside seating—all year long.
When it’s cold in the winter, a retractable shelter can be moved into place, creating an indoor-outdoor feel that protects diners from the elements. The heaters get fired up during the cold season to make sure guests can stay toasty, even outside.
And through the scorching hot Memphis summers, the patio’s misters spray the area with fine droplets of water to keep guests cool and comfortable.
These restaurants have what it takes to weather the storms of outdoor dining. You can learn from their success. Remember, it’s about cultivating a positive attitude, outfitting your space to keep guests dry and comfortable, and putting plans in place for when the unpredictable invariably happens.