Setting up Al fresco dining post-pandemic
As of spring 2020, Peel Wood Fired Pizza, with two locations in Illinois and one location in Missouri, had outdoor dining available for some guests. “Two of the locations had a dining patio, but one did not,” says Patrick Thirion, co-owner of the restaurant.
To accommodate new dining restrictions in the area, Thirion rented large tents to create more outdoor dining options. During cooler months, he brought in propane heaters and furnaces to warm the space. “We have a very good following and customers were very happy with how seriously we took the mitigations and still offered them a place to dine with us,” Thirion says. With plans in place to open another restaurant, Thirion is looking at incorporating even more outdoor seating. “We’re focusing on the outside patio, which will be more extensive and have more outdoor options,” he says.
Whether you’ve set up an outdoor dining area or are getting ready to open one during the warm months, the layout you include and the atmosphere you create can make a big difference. Read on to learn about what to keep in mind when creating and maintaining an outdoor eating space.
Start Planning Early
Before constructing or expanding an outdoor dining space, talk to all parties involved, such as your landlord, contractor and architect. “They will be able to advise you on any requirements from your municipality during the early stages of planning,” says Tim Spiegelglass, owner of Spieglglass Construction Company in St. Louis, Missouri, which builds restaurants and pizzerias. “Depending on your situation, you might also be able to work with your landlord on a tenant allowance, where you are allotted a certain dollar amount to improve the property.”
When laying out plans, think about prevention and safety features. For instance, consider how you’ll deal with water from rainfall or other potential flooding. “Ensure your patio is level and consider where the water is flowing through the property,” Spiegelglass says. Also check on putting up a barrier, such as a fence or wall, to protect diners from cars and other hazards. Some locations may require bollards, which are vertical posts, around the edges of the seating area.
If possible, line up the seating area so it is close to a restroom. You might give guests the option of accessing a restroom from the outside, so they don’t have to go inside. If not, try to place the outdoor tables in a spot that is close to an indoor restroom.
If you’re located in a seasonal area and only offer outdoor dining during warm months, evaluate when it makes sense to open up the space in terms of revenue. “Know when having everything set up is profitable,” says Elizabeth Kelly, marketing specialist at Speedline Solutions, which provides software solutions for point of sale demands of pizza and delivery chains. If you have records from previous years that identify sales made from the outdoor patio, you can look through those to see when sales were at their highest. Thinking through how frequently the outdoor space has been used in the past works too. For instance, if you typically open the area in May but it doesn’t fill up with customers until June, it may be more cost-effective to wait until June. You won’t have to worry about cleaning the space, paying for lighting, and supplying staff until enough customers come so it makes sense financially.
If you do keep your outdoor space open during cold months, factor in costs associated with heating. “We have a heater and blankets, and table lamps,” says Antonio Ferraro, owner of Napoli Pasta Bar in Washington, D.C. and Napoli Salumeria in Arlington, Virginia. Covered areas also help keep customers warm when it’s chilly outside. Before adding heaters, however, it’s important to think about costs from heating, especially the propane needed during cold temperatures. The expenses may be worthwhile if customers are willing to brave the cold. “We incurred those outdoor costs to retain customers and give them a safe option for eating,” Thirion says.
Create an Efficient System
If your outdoor patio is far from the kitchen, and your staff will be spending time moving back and forth between the indoor and outdoor areas, look for ways to streamline processes. “Instead of having a server run back and forth, they can take an order on a tablet,” Kelly says. Some tablets offer additional features, such as flagging tables that haven’t received their food or noting an item that is taking a long time in the kitchen. This can help staff immediately spot any issues and work to resolve them, saving time and helping diners finish their meals and clear tables for the next set of guests.
Carrie Jeroslow, the owner of Elkin Creek Vineyard in Yadkin Valley, North Carolina, set up a reservation system to increase efficiency in the place’s outdoor eating area. “We have a traditional wood fire brick oven where we make handmade-to-order brick oven pizzas on the weekends,” she says. “Pre-pandemic, we used to take reservations for the dough only, because we make a certain amount that rises overnight and can’t make more when we run out.” The place would make about 60 to 70 pizzas during a six-hour timeframe. They also held about 40 percent of the dough for walk-ins. “People would wait up to an hour to get their pizzas since they are made one at a time,” Jeroslow says. “Because we are very well known for our pizzas, people would wait that long.”
Recently she and her business partner switched the system, and now take reservations and pre-orders only. This way, customers receive a reservation time and the place gets their order ahead of time. “People don’t wait at all for their food—everything is done right at their reservation time,” Jeroslow says. Guests can eat in the place’s covered pavilion. While they only make about 35 to 40 pizzas now, Jeroslow says she loves the new system. “People are really happy, and everyone moves in and out at a good rate. We also have lower stress in the kitchen.”
Rachel Hartman is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.