This article is for educational purposes and does not constitute legal, employment, or health advice. For specific advice applicable to your business, please contact a professional. Please note that regulations and rules related to COVID-19 and reopening change daily. The information in this article is current as of the publication date only. Please check local, state, and federal regulations for the most current information about reopening your business.
In 2020, restaurants took to the streets — and to parking lots, patios, and any other outdoor space they could grab. In 2021, despite indoor dining opening back up in some places, restaurants and diners alike aren’t interested in closing the doors to outdoor dining.
Our Future of Restaurants report found that over one-fifth of diners believe outdoor seating is crucial for safety, and 65% of customers would choose to dine outdoors even when it’s cold.
A recent survey from OpenTable revealed that 82% of restaurant goers wish restaurants would increase their outdoor seating areas. The temporary laws allowing restaurants to take over portions of streets and parking lots have been so successful that many cities — including New York and Boston — are considering expanding these allowances through the end of 2021 or longer.
Walter and Margarita Manzke, chefs and owners of Republic in LA, invested in converting their parking lot into an outdoor patio in 2020, stating that it was “worth every penny” and that they plan to keep it that way post-pandemic. “Definitely if we could hold onto one thing, in my opinion, it would be the patio,” Margarita Manzke says.
4 restaurant outdoor dining ideas that can increase profits
For restaurant owners who are now juggling indoor and outdoor dining, or who explored patio seating for the first time in 2020, here are ideas to make your outdoor dining space more profitable.
1. Host events at your restaurant, big or small
Entertainment and good food are longtime partners. People are yearning for both after feeling cooped up for the past year. Whether your restaurant is reopening your outdoor area or it’s been open this past year, here are a few ways you can bring events to life in your community:
- Partner with local brands, artists, and musicians to tap into wider audiences and draw people to enjoy your outdoor dining area.
- Leverage the renewed popularity of drive-in experiences to make the most of your outdoor space and appeal to guests’ nostalgia.
- Give people a reason to celebrate by embracing minor, lighthearted holidays like National IPA Day. These events can be as big as a ticketed soiree with a chef-crafted menu, or as small as a deal on IPAs with the purchase of a meal.
- Get creative with temporary menu items, or put a spin on one of your usual dishes (e.g., turn your regular basket of fries into loaded potato wedges with delicious toppings to mark National Potato Day). You can often charge a premium on “special occasion” menu offerings by making them exclusive and limited-time offers.
You don’t necessarily have to host an event to get in on the fun. Keep tabs on the events in your area. Concerts, sporting events, and film festivals all provide great opportunities to highlight the ambiance of your restaurant patio for guests to grab a bite before or after the event.
Capitalize on the buzz with promotions or specialty themed menu items that can fetch a higher margin (e.g., cocktails with names themed after a local film festival).
2. Develop an outdoor-only menu
You don’t have to offer your full menu to guests who choose to dine al fresco. Developing a separate, outdoor-only menu can help streamline your operations and make outdoor dining more profitable while also providing a tailored experience for patio guests.
Aim for a small selection of quality options to reduce analysis paralysis. This will help guests spend less time browsing the menu and more time eating and enjoying themselves.
When choosing what to put on your outdoor-only menu, think about which items offer high margins. Promote food and drink pairings or special patio cocktails to encourage alcohol sales (and higher profits).
Consider which areas of the kitchen are prone to getting bottlenecked. Select dishes from less-trafficked parts of the kitchen to streamline cooking, avoid long waits, and turn your tables faster. Include at least one dish that can be easily served right away to provide immediate gratification to outdoor diners and to ease the burden on your chefs.
Highlight shareable foods, which are rising in popularity, and dishes that pair well with the current season. Food that matches the weather is more appealing for guests who eat out in the fresh air, and adds to the atmosphere for the al fresco dining experience. Summer, for example, is a great time for fresh and light foods, barbecue flavors, and salty snacks.
3. Position a takeout window that leads to your outdoor seating area
If you offer takeout, optimize your layout so the pickup window is part of, or leads directly into, the inviting restaurant patio.
Give people a chance to see your comfortable outdoor furniture, feel the heat from the fire pit, and enjoy the ambiance firsthand. They are more likely to feel encouraged to dine in, or rather out, next time.
By making your outdoor seating area visible from the takeout window, it can help make takeout customers feel included in the restaurant experience even though they are eating off premises.
Be sure to post clear signage and messaging promoting your outdoor patio deals and specials. You may even include a coupon in every to-go order, redeemable only for outdoor dining.
On the flip side, incorporating your takeout window close to the outdoor dining area reminds patio guests that they can order takeout from you in the future too. Place signage around the outdoor space promoting your to-go service. This is a great chance to cross-sell the takeout and patio dining experience to increase profitability for both.
4. Use QR code ordering in your outdoor dining area
Many restaurants made the move from physical to digital menus and touchless payment options in 2020, and guests took to it. According to our Future of Restaurants report, technology is now an expected part of the dining experience, bringing convenience to both guests and restaurant staff.
Incorporating QR codes in your restaurant allows you to streamline operations and boost profit, particularly for your outdoor dining space. Digital ordering reduces paper and printing costs and enables you to make menu changes easily and cost-effectively.
Guests can pull up the menu and order directly from their smartphones, minimizing the time between seating a table and getting an order to the kitchen. This frees up staff time for delivering food and catering to guests’ needs, which can make a big impact for staff traveling back and forth between the indoor dining room and outdoor space.
You can get more creative with QR codes than just using them for your digital menu. QR codes on carryout containers can direct guests to videos, recipes, and playlists to engage with your brand further.
Incorporate QR codes at key spots around your physical dining area — such as at the outdoor bar or near the fire pit — and lead guests to delightful add-ons, like a digital quiz to help them pick a drink to match their mood or a trivia game they can play at the table.
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