Outdoor Dining Boom: How Restaurants Can Capitalize on the Al Fresco Opportunity

As the weather warms and patios come alive, restaurants across the country are gearing up for a summer of outdoor dining. The pent-up demand for al fresco experiences is palpable, and smart operators are taking strategic steps to make the most of this lucrative opportunity.

According to data from Tock, nearly a third of restaurants in Tock’s network have the space needed to serve guests outdoors, with 33 percent having an existing space. As the outdoor dining boom continues, here is how operators can strategically prepare or update their spaces, operations and offerings.

Secure the Space

With the recent New York City legislation making outdoor dining permanent, other cities may soon follow suit, opening up exciting real estate opportunities for restaurateurs. 

Sidewalk cafes, rooftop terraces, and courtyards are all excellent options for expanding seating. Alternatively, underutilized parking lots or backyards can be transformed into lively outdoor spaces complete with communal tables, string lights, and rustic decor.

For those with limited space, even a single table outside can be transformed into a romantic date night or a special experience.

Tock partner SingleThread, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sonoma County, takes outdoor dining to new heights with its charming on-site greenhouse. Surrounded by flourishing herbs, edible flowers, and citrus trees, guests can savor the farm-to-table tasting menu while immersed in nature.

Differentiate the Experience

Don’t just think of the patio as an extension of your dining room—it’s prime real estate for collaborations, parties, pig roasts, oyster-shucking demos, and so much more. By curating special packages and unique events, operators can elevate the al fresco offering and encourage repeat visits.

Tock's restaurant partners are leading the charge in this regard. For example, Beckon, located in Denver, hosts a highly popular "Strawberry Moon" dining series on its outdoor garden patio from April through June. This experience offers a more private and open-air setting for guests. Kansas City’s Ça Va is known for throwing patio parties with guest chefs. In the summer, you can find chef Brian Jupiter of Chicago’s Frontier in the beer garden hosting shrimp boils and smoke sessions. And at Queen’s English in DC, the team brings in wine professionals for Tuesday Tastings on the patio.

Leverage Data Insights

In today's competitive landscape, the strategic use of data is becoming increasingly essential for staying ahead. By diving into historical performance data, restaurants can identify which menu items consistently sell out or underperform during specific seasons. This knowledge allows them to optimize their offerings based on demand patterns. The use of outdoor space often means more seating opportunities for businesses. With a surge in covers, it’s more important to nail down inventory in order to minimize waste and reduce unnecessary costs. 

Streamline Reservations

As guests eagerly await the return of outdoor dining, restaurants should ensure their booking systems are optimized to handle the influx of reservations. Tock’s real-time reservation management tools allow operators to quickly update availability, reflect patio seating, and respond to cancellations or no-shows.

To further incentivize outdoor bookings, businesses can offer new seasonal experiences from weekday lunchtime specials to themed events to draw attention to these spaces. These offers should be prominently featured on the restaurant's reservation page, enticing guests to secure their spots.

Craft an Inviting Ambiance

Comfortable cushions, retractable awnings, and patio umbrellas can extend the usability of the space, while strategically placed greenery, string lights, and background music set the perfect mood. Creating an appealing outdoor dining space requires thoughtful planning. Here’s a quick checklist:

Quality furniture: Invest in comfortable and durable outdoor furniture. You may need to refresh umbrellas or planters each season. Budget accordingly. 

Weather Protection: Install retractable awnings or large umbrellas to shield guests from direct sunlight. These also provide cover during light rain, which means fewer cancellations or shuffling around of guests.

Heaters: Extend the usability of your outdoor space into cooler evenings by incorporating patio heaters. Greenery and plants: Introduce potted plants and greenery – native plants if possible. Hanging baskets with colorful flowers add vibrancy. 

Seating arrangement: Arrange tables to accommodate both small and large groups. Consider communal tables for a convivial vibe or intimate nooks.

View optimization: Position seating to take advantage of scenic views.

Extra service station: Whether it’s an extra POS station, ice bins, or bus tubs, efficiency is everything for both guests and your staff.

Maximize Operational Efficiency

To prepare operations for a great guest experience in the outdoor dining space, restaurants should focus on optimizing their workflows and staff management. If a restaurant typically does 100 seats inside, but now has 50 seats outdoors, they need to adapt their operations accordingly. Staffing up is crucial to ensure efficient service. With the added outdoor seating, restaurants may need to hire additional servers, hosts, and bussers to handle the increased capacity. Proper scheduling and cross-training will be essential to maintain a smooth flow of service.

Behind the bar, buckets of beer or batch cocktail preparation can help streamline operations, while the kitchen should offer a selection of dishes with minimal pickup time. 

Think Ahead to the Next Season

While the warmer summer months often inspire visions of vibrant outdoor dining, restaurants should not overlook the potential of their outdoor spaces during the winter season as well. By getting creative with their alfresco offerings, operators can extend the use of their outdoor areas and provide a unique and memorable experience for guests year-round.

One innovative example comes from Tock customer Igloo Magic at Blue Heron Brewery & Event Center, located in Medina, Ohio. During the colder months, the restaurant transforms its patio into a captivating winter wonderland. Transparent igloos envelop the outdoor tables, keeping guests warm and comfortable despite the chilly temperatures. 

These enchanting bubbles allow patrons to dine with uninterrupted views of the surrounding environment, while still enjoying the comforts of an indoor setting. Inside the igloos, guests can savor creative comfort food offerings and craft beer, all while immersed in a unique atmosphere that keeps the al fresco spirit alive all year long.