The latest research by VSAG (Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group) shows that adding outdoor seating to your restaurant or coffeehouse can increase gross profits by up to 65%.
That’s a pretty strong argument for buying a few café tables, picnic tables or other outdoor furniture, and inviting your customers to enjoy your sidewalk—or building a patio or deck if you have the space.
There are plenty of other eateries with outdoor seating, so you’ll need to differentiate yours to make it more inviting than the one(s) down the street.
Obtain your sidewalk café permit
Every city requires a permit to use sidewalk space for business purposes. It’s generally well worth the cost—probably under $300 per year for a space that will accommodate 8-10 patrons, or four small café tables. The initial application process fee can be anywhere from $100 to $500. But you won’t have to pay that again unless you want to expand or reduce your use of the city sidewalk.
Train your staff
When you open up your outdoor seating area, you’ll have several more guests to manage. And often, the tables where they’ll be sitting won’t be visible from inside your business. Staff up, and make sure these customers are being checked on regularly if you have a full-service operation. If you’re counter-service only, make sure your outdoor area remains clean—no drink-cup rings or crumbs on the tables. Out of sight should not mean, “out of mind.”
It might seem easiest to assign one server to the patio, but if everyone wants to sit outside, that puts a lot of stress on that server (and means they’re getting loads of tips, so other servers might be resentful). By giving every server a table outside, it keeps the number of tables even among all of the servers. This also makes it easy for them to check on each other’s tables, if one of them is tied up inside the restaurant with a complicated order or a chatty customer.
Establish a Pet Policy
As soon as you open your outdoor space, you’re bound to see customers showing up with their dogs. This brings in more business, but also some potential complications. Some guests may be allergic, and some dogs may be too hyper to handle.
If you want to allow pets, you could have specific pet days/hours or make part of your outdoor space for human guests only. And you should definitely require dogs to be leashed. Any dog can be driven to nip, wander into the flow of foot traffic, or even use the patio as a bathroom.
Of course, you could also ban pets altogether. But generally, dogs that are welcome on the outskirts of restaurants can bring with them a lot of joy and interest for customers.
Coordinate Your Outdoor Decor
If possible, make your outdoor setting a natural extension of your restaurant/café’s interior décor—but perhaps slightly more casual. At least stick to the same color scheme and concept as your interior. Potted plants, string lights and space heaters are other great ways to create a memorable outdoor space.
Make Your Server Uniforms Weather Appropriate
If your staff wears uniforms or abides by a dress code, make sure it’s one that’s comfortable for the season. You might consider a lightweight polo for warm days, or a long-sleeved polo for chillier ones.
For a bar or more casual cafe, you could design a T-shirt for the season and sell them to patrons as well. Outdoor uniforms will make your servers more comfortable and will create a more seasonal atmosphere.
Have a Plan for Weather Changes
More than 90 percent of restaurant operators say that changes in weather conditions affect their sales and customer counts, according to The National Restaurant Association. Your outdoor seating area, of course, will be the most affected by weather.
Make sure you have a plan for last-minute weather changes. Do you have an awning or table umbrellas for unexpected showers? Or will you usher guests back inside so they don’t get wet? The best outdoor seating areas can accommodate customers rain or shine.