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 spaces they could grab. Today restaurants and diners alike are disinterested in closing the doors to outdoor dining.
The Square 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. The Square 2022 version of the report found that restaurants continue to get creative so customers may dine however they feel safe, with 50% of restaurants adding new products or services to accommodate changing customer needs during the pandemic.
Walter and Margarita Manzke, chefs and owners of République in Los Angeles, 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 on to 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 juggle indoor and outdoor dining, or who explored patio seating for the first time recently, here are some 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 two years. 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 to 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 to appeal to guests’ nostalgia.
- Give people a reason to celebrate by embracing minor, lighthearted holidays such as 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). Often you can 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 and also provide 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, to avoid long waits, and to 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 it adds to the atmosphere of the al fresco dining experience. Summer, for example, is a great time for fresh and light foods, barbecue flavors, and salty snacks.
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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, to feel the heat from the fire pit, and to 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 takeout customers feel included in the restaurant experience even though they are eating off premises.
Be sure to post clear signage and messaging to promote 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 to promote 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 or mobile POS options in your outdoor dining area.
Many restaurants made the move from physical to digital menus and touchless payment options, and guests took to it. According to the Square Future of Restaurants report, technology is now an expected part of the dining experience, bringing convenience both to guests and to 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 time for staff to deliver food and cater to guests’ needs, which can make a big impact for staff traveling back and forth between the indoor dining room and the 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.
If you still prefer to have your waitstaff take orders, a mobile POS system for tableside ordering and payments can help you provide a high-level customer experience and streamline your ordering and payment processes behind the scenes. QR codes and mobile POS solutions can help your staff work more efficiently and can open up their time to focus on giving guests the outdoor dining experience they came for.