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By Dana Krook
Sunshine! Cocktails! Fresh summer salads! Umbrellas!
Patio season is almost upon us. It’s the time of year when vitamin D deficient patrons emerge from their delivery-only hibernation caves ready to soak up some sun and sip on a Corona – or five.
For many restaurants, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! But the pressure is on too.
Opening up a new seating area for your restaurant adds a whole new paradigm to your restaurant’s labor, operations and profit base. A successful patio season can have lasting effects, boosting your business year round. But the opposite is also true.
So, the question is, are you ready?
You’re about to be!
Here are seven tips and tricks to set your patio season up for success.
First things first, it’s time to prepare your restaurant patio. That means washing those rain/snow/sleet-ridden gates and windows, power washing the leaf-stained floor, and inspecting patio seating and equipment. Umbrellas stowed over the winter could be in a state of disrepair, meaning you either need to reach out to your beer sponsors for new umbrella swag or make a – costly – visit to the hardware store.
Either way, you’ve got to ensure your patio has a balance of sun and shade for those who love to bask and those who are sun sensitive.
And then there’s outdoor lighting. Some lucky staffer gets the fun job of emptying lamp posts of bugs and checking string lights for dead bulbs.
There’s nothing quite like sipping a glass of white wine to the sound of wasps buzzing threats into your ear.
Beyond shade and fixing rickety furniture, stocking up on insect provisions is also important. Consider purchasing some insect repelling plants, like lavender or chrysanthemums. Not only do they add to the outdoor feel of your patio, but they also smell good – to us humans at least.
Tiki torches can create a fun vacation ambiance – enough to make one forget they’re stuck in the city – while doubling as an invisible bug fence. Citronella coils or candles also work when placed directly on tables. Plus, they can add a nice personal touch from the server who, when lighting them, just looks like they’re setting the mood.
From the patio, to the bar, to the patio, to the kitchen, one arm full of dishes, a tray of drinks on the head, while trying to kick the patio door open – patio servers have a tough go.
They’ve got to navigate their section outside, which is often the furthest possible point from the kitchen and, depending on the layout, sometimes even POS station. A rule of thumb for patio servers is usually to do a sweep of every table before heading inside.
However, this means chatting with guests, taking orders, and clearing tables in one fell swoop. A few one off requests in a row and a server will quickly find themselves holding onto orders for too long before getting to send them off to the kitchen. This results in long wait times for customers and an increase in human errors.
How can you help? Take the indoor server stations and bring them outdoors.
The key to fine tuning patio operations is twofold:
The mobile POS has revolutionized the way patio servers do their jobs. With the ability to submit orders to the kitchen and bar tableside, they can maximize their outside time with guests, getting orders in immediately, rather than rushing back to the terminal to punch in the order. Not only do servers then have more band-width, but they’re able to better serve the needs of their patrons without being out of sight for too long.
But don’t stop there.
An outdoor bussing station – fully equipped with cutlery, side plates, menus, napkins, garbage can, and any other bussing items a server could require – will drastically reduce the time lost moving in and out of your restaurant. Just ensure minimal food waste goes into the outdoor garbage so you don’t attract bugs.
Nothing says “COME TO OUR PATIO!” like a live band, a balmy night, and a party.
And it’s been a long winter, so your first task is to remind patrons why they should be taking to your patio over Joe’s down the street.
When you’re planning your patio opener, it’s a great time to revisit local bylaws to ensure you’re not infringing on any noise restrictions. For subsequent patio events, creating a calendar well ahead of time can help determine your staffing needs, as well as get marketing efforts underway early to avoid any last minute scrambling.
To make your event stand out, consider hiring a band or featuring a speciality dish, like a crawfish boil or a roasted pig on a spit, paired with a beer special.
No patio is complete without a light, summer-inspired menu.
From gazpacho to fish tacos to a leafy green salad, there’s a reason for the light fare: summer makes us crave foods with high water content. When sitting in the heat of the summer sun, guests are probably sweating.
According to HungryHouse, sweating “makes us crave foods that have a high percentage of water content to replenish our supply of fluids. This includes watermelon (94%), grapefruit (90%), peppers (92%), zucchini (95%) and strawberries (94%) which are luckily in season.”
What’s more is that our cravings also move from hot – think “hearty stew” hot – to spicy, like chili pepper calamari. This is because spice activates our internal cooling system. So when you’re creating your summer specials, think cooling foods, ripe with water content and a punch of spice.
When looking specifically at your drink menu, consider these two tips to perfect your summer cocktail menu:
Test and refine your recipes for balance, flavor, and drinkability, always keeping the customer experience top of mind. Roessl notes that muddled blueberries clog straws, so he opts for flavored vodka to impart a blueberry flavor and eliminate the annoyance. Be sure to try different amounts of ingredients until you find the perfect balance. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!
If you want your cocktails to taste fresh, you need fresh ingredients. Fresh and seasonal ingredients win in every case (this means fresh ice too)! Ready-made mixes might seem like an easy alternative, but with so much competition out there and endless resources online for creating unique and interesting recipes, going this extra mile will make you stand out and have customers coming back for more.
Whether you’ve got a thunderstorm to contend with or a line up out the door, staffing is the main juggling act of restaurant managers in the summer. Too many, not enough – it’s time to get out last year’s sales reports to compare against this year’s projections. This way, you’ll be able to more accurately hire and staff both your patio and your indoor dining room.
When creating your schedule, you’ll need to take weather into consideration. Rain might mean that your patio is closed for the day, but it could also mean that your bar area is about to get jammed. Scheduling staff for on-call shifts when weather forecasts are sketchy is one way to manage rain, but what about when the weather suddenly clears mid dinner seating?
A culture of teamwork is essential when the weather can’t make up its mind. Training hosts, runners and barbacks to become jacks of all trades can mean the difference of a busy night where staff and customers leave happy, or a night where staff is run down and customers leave unsatisfied.
When everyone’s got a patio, how are people going to find yours? Go back to the basics; use both traditional and digital marketing methods in order to get your patio bumping.
The advantages of the digital word of mouth have a lasting effect. In addition to the regular geo-tagging, hashtagging and day-to-day posting, you can immediately ramp up your social media game with cheap and cheerful Facebook and Instagram advertising. Then, work to pitch influencers and media. Whether it’s a food writer from Time Out New York or BlogTO, or a local food blogger, use their third party influence, readership and following to ignite the buzz.
Back to the more traditional methods, the coupon is still one of the most effective ways to get people in your doors. Whether it’s delivered by way of email marketing or by hand outs to local businesses, a good deal travels fast.
Even better, the summer is a perfect time to engage with your community. Showcase your wares by investing in a tent at a local festival or event. The effect of these efforts go beyond merely filling your patio, but will also serve to expose your offerings to a wider variety of prospective customers.
A successful patio season doesn’t just ensure a busy, profit-yielding summer season when spirits are high. A memorable experience on your patio can have lasting, all-season effects.
Dana is the former Content Marketing Manager at TouchBistro, sharing tips for and stories of restaurateurs turning their passion into success. She loves homemade hot sauce, deep fried pickles and finding excuses to consume real maple syrup.
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