How to Prepare for Outdoor Dining

This article is for educational purposes and does not constitute legal, financial, or tax advice. For specific advice applicable to your business, please contact a professional.

Warmer temperatures mean a return to outdoor dining, and restaurants that add seating to an outside space can attract more customers and boost their revenue. According to the National Restaurant Association, nearly four in 10 consumers said having the option to sit outside would make them more likely to choose one restaurant over another.

Putting some tables on a patio, deck, or sidewalk is the first step, but don’t stop there. These six tips will help prepare your employees for a successful outdoor dining season.

1. Design the space.

Outdoor dining becomes a greater draw for customers if the space looks comfortable and inviting. While furniture is essential, so are the details, like accessories and lighting. According to a survey by Restaurant Development + Design, more than 43% of restaurant operators plan on upgrading and improving their outdoor dining areas.

When choosing your seating, look for durable options that hold up to the elements. Pick furnishings that complement your indoor décor, creating a cohesive look. Next, consider adding plants to introduce a sense of nature. You can also make the space more inviting during the evening by hanging string lights that add ambiance and glow.

It’s also important to have a plan for the weather. For example, umbrellas or retractable awnings protect diners from the sun and rain, making your outdoor space more usable regardless of weather. Portable heaters or fire pit tables warm up the area during cooler temps and extend the number of weeks you can offer outdoor dining. If you can’t weatherproof your space, be sure to have a weather plan. Check the day’s forecast each morning to decide if outdoor seating is viable. Also, plan for sudden weather events by instructing your staff on the protocol for bringing diners indoors.

2. Review last year’s data. 

If you offered outdoor seating last year, reviewing the sales and inventory reports from your point-of-sale (POS) system could help you prepare for this year. For example, which menu items were most popular and which were not? Did you consistently run out of any ingredients or supplies? How have your costs changed? Which promotions were most effective? Tools such as Square Dashboard can help you answer those questions.

Use this information to plan your inventory, menu, pricing, and marketing strategies. For example, you should stock up on nonperishable items that were diner favorites last year. A robust POS system will allow you to streamline your inventory system of perishable products with automated purchase orders. You may need to update your menu and pricing to reflect cost changes. And consider repeating promotions that successfully attracted new customers to your patio or deck last year. 

3. Create a seasonal menu.

Eating outside is more enjoyable for your patrons when your menu enhances al fresco dining. Add summer favorites like frozen drinks and lighter dishes, such as new entrée salads. Reviewing your POS data will help you determine items that were popular last year that you’ll want to bring back or new items you might add with a similar fare. Seasonal, limited-availability dishes or specials will add interest to your offerings and can drive repeat business from diners who want to enjoy your food before it’s gone. 

Farm-to-table and craft food menus are popular with today’s diners. According to a National Restaurant Association Industry Report, 76% of adults are likelier to visit a restaurant that offers locally sourced food. Consider adding menu items with ingredients from nearby sources, such as area farms and small businesses. Visiting your local farmer’s market can help get your menu-planning juices flowing and connect you to potential new suppliers.

4. Prepare your staff.

Ideally, you’ll want a service team dedicated to your outdoor space. It can be challenging for your wait staff to care for customers inside and outside. You don’t want your outdoor diners overlooked because they’re “out of sight.” 

If staffing shortages impact your ability to bring on new workers, invest in server-friendly tools that streamline your operations. For example, handheld POS systems such as Square Terminal enable tableside ordering, which saves your servers’ time and gets orders to the kitchen and bar faster. You can also consider using QR codes that allow diners to order and pay at the table, freeing up your wait staff to focus on customer service versus order taking and transaction processing.

5. Decide on a pet policy.

As of 2023, 20 states have laws or regulations about allowing dogs into the outdoor dining areas of restaurants. While you don’t have to allow pets, you should decide on your policy ahead of the outdoor dining season. 

Consider the pros and cons. Being a dog-friendly restaurant could increase patronage from some of your clientele. This can be especially important to consider if your restaurant is in a foot-traffic-friendly area of town or near a place where people typically bring their pets, like a dog park. However, welcoming dogs may dissuade people who aren’t pet lovers or who suffer from allergies. 

If you allow pets, you could limit access to designated tables on one side of your outdoor dining space. Make the area pet friendly by adding water bowls to keep furry friends cool and hydrated. And share your policy in your marketing efforts so diners know their pets are welcome. 

6. Create your marketing strategy.

Since many customers actively seek outdoor dining opportunities, you’ll want to advertise your space in your summer marketing. For example, announce the return of outdoor dining in your email marketing campaigns. Or, if you added new furnishings and décor, you could hold a “grand reopening.” And be sure to share photos of your outdoor space on your social media profiles and website.

Promote your seasonal menu in your advertising and email campaigns, inviting diners to enjoy the items under the sun or stars. Put a sign outside advertising your specials and invite passersby to dine on your patio. And if you offer online reservations, add an option for choosing an outdoor table. 

By prepping your restaurant for a busy outdoor dining season, you can provide guests with the best experience possible — one that encourages them to return again and again this summer.

Stephanie Vozza
Stephanie Vozza is an experienced writer who specializes in small business and retail. She has been a regular columnist for for five years, and her byline has appeared in Inc., Entrepreneur, and Parade.


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