How to win with outdoor dining
As Aldo Zaninotto plotted the 2020 opening of Testaccio, his Ancient Roman-inspired concept in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, he knew outdoor dining would be an
important part of his business operations.
The seasoned restaurateur, of course, had no idea just how important those outdoor tables and chairs would be to his fledgling operation.
Amid COVID-19, outdoor dining became Testaccio’s primary touchpoint with Chicago diners after its June 2020 opening. The restaurant’s sidewalk set-up, some 80 seats, and a back patio with an additional 25 seats enabled Testaccio’s crew to serve up the eatery’s Italian comfort food and wood-fired oven specialties to guests and cultivate an early following. Absent outdoor dining, Zaninotto acknowledges, Testaccio would have struggled to gain any footing.
“Serving guests is why you’re in business, right?” says Zaninotto, who outfitted Testaccio’s sidewalk dining space with greenery, vintage furniture, overhead lighting and heaters to create a comfortable and safe dining experience resembling street dining in Europe.
The rise of al fresco dining
Though pizza-peddling operations largely fared well amid the pandemic thanks to delivery and pickup capabilities woven into the industry’s DNA, dine-in business for pizzerias across the U.S. suffered. For many, outdoor dining became a lifeline to traffic, sales and, in some cases, even sanity, as it allowed operators to engage with guests and foster community in isolating times.
While some pizzerias already claimed defined outdoor dining spaces, others fashioned new al fresco dining environments. In cities, operators converted sidewalks into de facto front porches while suburban parking lots morphed into outdoor dining retreats. Pizzerias that once paid little attention to outdoor dining found it central to operational sustainability and discovered a compelling brand extension.
And outdoor dining’s intrigue continues into the present day, especially as some diners – one in four, according to a March 2022 report from Morning Consult – remain skittish of indoor dining and restaurants look to regain revenue and momentum lost amid the pandemic.
“We’re getting more requests for outdoor dining spaces because of the success people found during COVID-19,” reports Erica Diskin of Assembly Design Studio, a Boston-based design and branding firm that specializes in hospitality establishments. “Demand for outdoor dining hasn’t gone away even as people have been let back inside.”
Outdoor dining done right
While operators embraced al fresco dining as an opportunity to rather seamlessly and cost effectively expand – if not manufacture – capacity over recent years, guest expectations for comfortable outdoor dining rose in tandem – and those heightened expectations are not “going away anytime soon,” Diskin says.
Capitalizing on outdoor dining’s potential requires a thoughtful approach and careful attention to the guest experience.
Do: Be intentional.
Yes, a pizzeria can plop folding chairs and metal tables on a sidewalk and call it a day, but it’s far better to fashion outdoor dining as an extension of the dining room. Noting that a little investment goes a long way, Diskin’s firm has incorporated outdoor booths and softer seating into outdoor settings while also bringing interior elements such as rustic wood tabletops and colored walls outside.
“The most successful restaurants didn’t necessarily spend an exorbitant amount of money, but they also didn’t pull items from a party rental truck either,” Diskin says. “There was thought to carrying the inside out.”
Don’t: Ignore protection.
Overhead coverage is critical to creating a positive dining experience for guests and minimizing Mother Nature’s intrusion. A fixed roof, canopy, awning or, at minimum, an umbrella offers protection from sun and rain while also limiting operational angst should the weather turn.
“If you have a packed inside and it starts to rain, then where do you put those outdoor diners?” asks Jim Lencioni of Aria Group Architects, a suburban Chicago architecture and design firm whose client list includes independent restaurants and national chains.
Providing coverage from other environmental elements – headlights from the parking lot, car fumes on the street or trash bins – is also important. Creating a border around the outdoor dining space with planters or fencing, for instance, not only defines the dining area, but also minimizes disruption from external factors. And for those offering outdoor dining near car or bicycle traffic, substantial protection is necessary from a safety standpoint.
Do: Lengthen the season.
Even in areas of the Midwest and Northeast, restaurants can extend their outdoor dining season with some clever solutions. Enclosures and outdoor heaters can allow guests to dine outside well into the fall while Diskin has also seen restaurants offer guests branded blankets as well.
Don’t: Fail to consider service.
From roll carts for bussing to a credenza or hutch storing rollups, plates and silverware, Diskin urges restaurants to consider how staff members function outdoors. Absent the right tools and service station areas, al fresco dining risks becoming an inefficient experience that frustrates staff and guests.
Do: Incorporate lighting.
Whether it’s stringing patio lights above tables or placing individual lights on tables, lighting is an important consideration as people want to see each other and what they’re eating. Uplighting on trees, plants or even the building, meanwhile, can add a sophisticated touch and provide guests a more distinctive dining experience.
Don’t: Neglect nature.
Bugs, mosquitoes and birds will naturally be outside, and they can – quite literally – pester an enjoyable dining experience. To combat this, Diskin has seen restaurants invest in three-season structures, while Lencioni notes that screens are available for the rolling garage doors now commonplace at many eateries.
Do: Provide the extra touches.
Restaurants can elevate their outdoor dining environment with greenery and plants, which make a patio feel finished; an evenly distributed sound system; and televisions, especially if sports are a part of the concept.
Lencioni also suggests operators add amenities that enhance the venue’s energy, such as water and fire elements or an outdoor bar, or activities that encourage guests to stay longer and spend more, including games like bocce and cornhole.
“During COVID, people did what they needed to do,” Diskin says. “Now, people are evolving and restaurants are realizing they need to step it up, too.”
Daniel P. Smith Chicago-based writer has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.