Best Practices for Outdoor Dining All Year Long

Outdoor dining is still top of mind as owners want to keep employees and customers safe and have questions about maintaining  outdoor spaces in inclement weather. Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine  reached out to Rick Camac, dean of restaurant and hospitality management, at Institute of Culinary Education, for his expert advice.

Tips for dealing with inclement weather:
  • Try to tent your area and not rely solely on umbrellas, which are not useful and potentially dangerous in wind and heavy rain.
  • If allowable by law, run gas to the area to fuel heaters. If propane is acceptable, use that as a second option.  
  • Have clear sheets, with vents, that can be rolled down to protect from wind and rain while allowing for some ventilation.
  • Build a platform beneath your area if it’s not almost perfectly flat. ​Many sidewalks slant out toward the street. That's fine for sidewalks but not very conducive to outdoor dining, including keeping tables leveled.
  • If your area is going out onto the street, make sure you have some reflective tape so that in the evening, it is clearly marked off for traffic and bikes.
  • Use planters and other sturdy dividers to make sure your space is presentable and doesn’t look haphazardly put together.
  • Make it easy for your staff to service tables and consider the flow of area traffic in your dining area.
  • Determine a way to place your logo in the outdoor area, for marketing purposes.
  • Create an outdoor service station and contactless menus, ordering and payments available.
  • Make sure you have all necessary permits in place and your staff knows where they are.
  • The outdoor area, by nature, will get dirtier than your dining room will – get yourself a power washer.
  • Have pest control options in place and have the area serviced often.  
Tips to help employees deal with heat:
  • Set up a rotation that ​allows for the employees to spend some time inside the restaurant (there are still jobs to do inside).
  • Supply synthetic tee's or other clothing that is light and helps to wick away perspiration and keep you cool (like running / gym attire).
  • Allow employees to wear shorts, lighter clothing (like cotton and linen that breathe better) and hats.
  • Allow employees to take water breaks. Keep an outdoor water station under the cover of shade and drink often (more than you think you need to). 
  • Set up awnings and other coverings for the benefit of your guests and employees.
Tips for minimizing risk:
  • ​Marked spaces to eat or drink.
  • Tables separated further apart (this will vary based on federal, state and local guidelines).
  • Restaurant staff and employees wearing masks and disposable gloves, including FOH (servers, bartenders, cashiers, etc.) and BOH (including cooks, chefs, etc.).
  • Disinfecting areas of the restaurant far more frequently and definitely between the turnover of any tables / chairs.
  • Set seating times.
  • Contactless payment.

How much should a restaurant invest in outdoor dining necessities?  

Traditionally, the rule of thumb is to invest 50 percent into a budget of what one year of revenue will bring. You hope for an ROI within three years. In this case, restaurants will likely want and need to get that payback sooner. That said, this revenue is needed more immediately, so investment into it is not an option. Thankfully, outdoor dining is less expensive to build out. A budget of $10,000-30,000 should suffice for most. This includes a platform, planters or dividers, a covering of some type, maybe some branding, tables and chairs and perhaps a service station. Those are the basics.

Outdoor dining is here to stay for the foreseeable future and that means deal with weather challenges such as rain and changing temperatures, how can restaurateurs make guests feel more comfortable?  

The best advice I can give is to have a covering that provide as much protection as possible while allowing for adequate social distancing (and making proper sanitization as obvious as possible for all outdoor dining, as you would for indoor). Heaters and proper lighting help as well. 

What are the best ways to manage guest expectations?  

Guests need to know in advance if there is a scheduled time to dine and when a guest may have to leave for the next table (I’ve seen some restaurants handle that very well).  Handling this well means you inform guests ahead of time that in order to accommodate as many diners as reasonably possible (and given the situation), please limit your time to 90 minutes. I’ve also heard 2 hours which is also very reasonable. On your side, get the food out in a timely manner, without having the guest feel rushed, so that the timeframe requested is possible. This information should be communicated when the guest makes their reservation. Practically, with potential inclement weather scenarios, it is the outdoors and guests need to know that “stuff happens”. There may have to be a cancellation and they may need to reschedule. That may not be able to be “tomorrow”. 

How much attention should owners/operators/managers pay to the weather forecasts when scheduling staff and what are best practices for washouts? 

They should pay plenty of attention. Backup plans are helpful. For instance, to avoid a situation where a restaurant cannot charge a customer because it rains halfway in between a dining experience, having a “take the rest home with you” policy helps. However, there may be some guests that will be very unhappy with that and you may have to comp at least part, if not all, of the meal. If the forecast predicts that rain is obvious, restaurants may be better off, for the most part, just closing for the night, unless there are really good coverings.  

Should they plan to have rainout specials for takeout and delivery?   

 In addition to the “take the rest home with you” policy, I would suggest a “rain out special” (assuming you already offer both delivery and takeout).  The idea here would be to offer a free item with each takeout/delivery order. For this, don’t give away something they would already be ordering but instead give away dessert or a drink (depending on the venue).  As margins are already low, over and above 3rd party fees, you do not want to "discount" dishes the guest would ordinarily purchase.  I'd rather add to their purchase with a free item, as opposed to discount what they purchase (similar to the way you would prefer to comp inside a restaurant).  Alternatively, you could also offer a 10% discount as a marketing expense.  Another idea would be to offer a prix-fixe at a discount (making sure you still have profitability) that includes a few choices from 3 different categories from the same menu you are already using for delivery and takeout (this cuts down on waste and labor).

How should a restaurant best promote its outdoor space? 

 Make it look great, take great photos and push it hard on social media!  It’s also important to remember that guests still expect an experience. Regardless of whether they are literally sitting on the street, think of creative ways to create an experience for customers.