Finance & Operations

5 Tips for Reopening Your Restaurant Patio for Outdoor Dining

By Dana Krook

Server wearing a face mask handing a man a beer on an outdoor patio

While changing COVID-19 restrictions forced many restaurants to lean on takeout and delivery throughout the winter months, warmer weather means the return of a valuable revenue source: outdoor dining. As summer approaches, reopening your restaurant patio for outdoor dining can be the perfect way to start welcoming diners back and begin recovering lost revenue.

Though the rules differ across North America, many cities are permitting the reopening of restaurant patios as a safe way for customers to dine in. For restaurants, this means that now’s the time to start making plans for the return of outdoor dining, including purchasing restaurant patio furniture, hiring staff, developing safety protocols, and more.

If your area has given the green light for patio dining, you should strongly consider reopening your restaurant patio for dine-in service. This guide to reopening your restaurant patio for outdoor dining will help you prepare by teaching you:

  • The benefits of offering outdoor restaurant seating service
  • 5 tips to prepare your restaurant patio for reopening
  • How to maintain your outdoor dining space
Server wearing a face mask handing a man a beer on an outdoor patio

4 Benefits of Restaurant Patio Dining 

With the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering, outdoor dining is still a better, safer option than serving customers in an enclosed dining room, and it offers other benefits as well.

1. Outdoor dining is a less risky alternative to indoor dining. When it comes to the question “is outdoor dining safe?,” the answer is that patio dining is generally safe when all the proper safety protocols are being followed. The coronavirus is transmitted when an infected person sneezes or coughs, spreading droplets into the air. Because outdoor spaces tend to be better ventilated and less crowded than indoor spaces, experts say restaurant patios are less risky (though some risks do still remain).

2. Patio dining can ease customers’ anxieties about going to restaurants. A 2020 survey by the online publication Slate found that 36% of respondents said they would eat at a restaurant outdoors, while only 15% said they would eat at a restaurant indoors with reduced seating. And a recent study by Constant Contact found that 21% of customers wanted outdoor dining to continue, even after the pandemic subsides.

3. Outdoor dining presents an opportunity for restaurants to maximize revenue. In areas where indoor dining capacity is limited, patio dining lets you regain full service dining as a revenue stream. And even if your dining room is fully open, operating a restaurant patio can boost your total by up to 30%.

4. Restaurants might be able to rehire some staff to support patio dining. With unemployment still high – especially among hospitality workers – opening up your restaurant patio can give you an opportunity to hire back staff who were let go due to pandemic-induced layoffs

While there are many benefits to outdoor dining, keep in mind that you’ll need a permit or license in order to operate a restaurant patio.

Fortunately, many cities have made it easier for restaurants to get permits for outdoor dining by simplifying applications, expediting approvals, waiving fees, and allowing new rules. Toronto’s CaféTO program, for example, is an initiative that helps restaurants apply for sidewalk and curb dining. And last year, some cities even closed down entire streets to create new spaces for outdoor dining. 

Woman and a man dining outside at separate tables

5 Steps to Prepare Your Restaurant Patio for Reopening

Once you’ve gotten the proper legal permits, you’re ready to start preparing your outdoor dining space. Here’s how to get ready for your restaurant patio reopening. 

1. Prepare the physical space

Use these restaurant patio ideas to create a space that keeps your guests and staff safe at all times.

If you’re launching outdoor dining for the first time, you may have to purchase outdoor dining furniture. If you have a choice, you might want to choose wooden or plastic outdoor furniture over metal, since some research shows that the coronavirus survives the longest on metal surfaces.

You’ll also need to consider capacity limits and set up your tables accordingly. Move tables so that they’re at least six feet apart, if not more, to promote social distancing. If your patio has bar seating, you could remove the bar and its stools to make room for tables. Then, update your floor plan management tool to reflect your new outdoor restaurant seating arrangements.

Your next consideration is overhead coverage. Before you put a tent up around your patio, check out local regulations. Some areas, like Parkland, Florida, require restaurants to obtain permits to put up tents. Others allow tents but only if they aren’t enclosed, like in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. No matter what type of tent you install on your patio, make sure that it doesn’t reduce air circulation. 

Next, create dedicated entrances and exits to your restaurant patio to prevent unnecessary foot traffic. Add social distancing signs and directional arrows on the floor with tape to ensure that guests know where to go.

Finally, if you have space to safely create a waiting area, put signs on the floor to mark off 6-foot wide spaces between customers. Don’t put out chairs, which could present another surface for the virus to collect on — and spread to others. Better yet, implement a digital waitlist through your reservation software or standalone app so that customers can wait to be seated from the safety of their cars, or away from the queue.

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2. Develop protocols

Introducing new safety policies and procedures can make customers feel more confident about dining with you. Consider developing the following protocols. 

  • Remove shareable items: Swap out your reusable menus for paper menus that you can dispose of after parties use them, or go digital with QR code menus. Switch communal condiment bottles out for single-serving packets, or pour them into condiment cups and give them to customers on request. 
  • Reservations: Consider implementing a reservations-only policy, especially if contact tracing is still required in your area or there are limits on restaurant patio capacity. Reservations can help your staff maintain capacity limits, prepare for service, and create downtime between outdoor restaurant seatings for increased safety. See how TouchBistro’s restaurant reservation system integrates seamlessly with your POS and makes it easier for you to welcome back guests safely and efficiently.
  • Develop a cleaning schedule: Your restaurant’s pre-pandemic cleaning protocol isn’t going to cut it anymore. Develop a new restaurant cleaning process and schedule that ensures high traffic areas are cleaned often. You should also make sure staff know how to clean a credit card reader and other high-touch restaurant technology.

Inform your customers about these new protocols on your restaurant’s website, on menus, and on signs around your restaurant and patio. Telling customers about the safety measures you’re taking will ease apprehensions they may have about going dining out.

Customers with masks on sitting on the terrace of a bar while attended by a waiter with gloves and masks

3. Train staff

Training staff members on your new safety measures is crucial, because they’ll be the ones to carry them out and ensure their success.

Some restaurants have developed new training programs for staff either coming back from furlough or those that are newly hired. These programs should include how to:

  1. Clock in and out of the POS properly, so you always have a record of when and where staff worked (in case required for contact tracing).
  2. Use new technology if you’ve acquired to adapt your business. This could include QR code menus, reservations software, contactless payment terminals, and tableside ordering with the POS.
  3. Take orders and serve food while social distancing (e.g. where to stand at tables, which side of approach, etc.). Servers should be minimizing how much time they spend close to customers and aim to provide a virtually contactless dining experience.
  4. Minimize contact with other employees, using specific workstations in the kitchen and a flow to move around the restaurant. If employees cannot work six feet apart in the kitchen, try to set up their stations back-to-back or side-to-side – avoid any face-to-face working conditions. Also encourage employees to practice a safe distance during breaks.
  5. Avoid unnecessary handling of food and dishware (e.g. no passing off plates, no adding garnishes without gloves, no touching glassware when refilling, no packing takeout/leftovers, etc.).
  6. Wipe down and disinfect tables after every use, using approved hard-surface cleaning materials and paying attention to key touch points
  7. Maintain frequent handwashing throughout a shift, using the correct technique, and avoid touching the face and mouth at all times.
  8. Wear gloves when necessary, ensuring they know when to change them (frequently), how to take them off, and how to discard them.
  9. Wear masks properly (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration still recommends them) from the entire nose down to the chin. Masks should fit snugly on the sides. Even if masks are no longer required in your area, it’s a good idea to take extra precautions in this industry. The Journal Inquirer has a great illustration that shows the do’s and don’ts of mask wearing.
An illustration of how to properly wear a face mask

Image source: Hollister Breslin

4. Communicate with customers

When you’re ready to welcome customers back for outdoor dining, make sure they know about your patio reopening by ramping up your restaurant marketing efforts – especially if you’re going to be open for major summer holidays like July 4th. Spread the word through social media, email, and your Google listing.

In your communications with customers be sure to drum up exciting offerings like a dedicated patio menu, but also include new rules and safety procedures in these announcements so that customers know you’re committed to offering a safe restaurant patio experience. You can also assuage their fears by answering questions like “is outdoor dining safe?” right off the bat.

Post signage around your outdoor dining space to remind customers to maintain a safe distance from others and wear masks (if still required) before being seated and when entering the restaurant to use the restroom. Train your staff to enforce these safety measures to create a safe restaurant patio environment for all.

5. Create a plan for poor weather

Unfortunately, when dining outdoors, your customers will be susceptible to the elements.

In the case of rain, determine whether it would be feasible for you to move customers inside. If that’s not an option, create a plan to quickly wrap up customers’ food to go. Consider putting large patio umbrellas on tables, as long as they don’t create an enclosed space.

If you’re in an area that is susceptible to intense heat, think twice before setting fans up outside. While a natural breeze isn’t concerning, fans cause air turbulence that can propel coronavirus droplets from one table to another. Consider closing patio service if temperatures get too high.

How to Safely Manage Your Restaurant Patio Dining Service

So you’ve done all you can to prepare your space, your staff, and your customers for restaurant patio dining. But once you reopen your patio, the work has only just begun. Stick to the procedures below to ensure you’re managing your patio dining service safely.

Groups of women dining at two cafe tables spaced far apart

Maintain physical distancing 

Staff and groups of customers should maintain a distance of six feet or two meters apart from each other at all times, including while waiting for a seat, while seated, and while taking orders. 

Reinforce the importance of maintaining this distance to staff during your training. Encourage staff to hold each other accountable by calling each other out if they get too close. 

Have staff reinforce physical distancing among customers as well. If you put a zero tolerance policy in place, make sure to inform your customers so they know your commitment to safety. 

Encourage customers to give feedback about safety measures and how well physical distancing was maintained by sharing their thoughts through social media or email.

Manage reservations

Your reservations tool can help you seat customers safely, especially if contact tracing is still a condition of reopening in your area. Space apart seating times to allow for cleaning between parties. For example, if your average table turnover time is one hour and 45 minutes, block out tables for two-hour intervals to make time for cleaning. 

If your space is limited and reservations are popular, you may have to create a time limit on tables. Thoroughly communicate this point to customers so that the policy doesn’t take them by surprise. Let them know about the time limit both when they make the reservation, and when you seat them. Train staff to politely enforce outdoor restaurant seating time limits. 

Maintain hygiene

Maintain high cleanliness standards for staff and surfaces. 

Even as more staff and customers are vaccinated, proper hygiene should still be a top priority on restaurant patios. Front-of-house staff should maintain personal hygiene by washing hands frequently and staying home if they don’t feel well. Food handlers should wear masks at all times and obey social distancing in the kitchen.

Check the FDA’s website for the most up-to-date guidelines about food safety amid the pandemic. If you create a checklist for your cleaning policy, enforce it by requiring staff to sign off each time they’ve completed it. 

Track data to manage costs better

If you had an idea of your food and labor cost percentage before the pandemic, those figures are probably no longer applicable to the current situation. Keep a close eye on POS reports around your restaurant patio reopening. This data can give you accurate information on food and labor costs to help you adjust your budget and spending.

You could even use this information to adjust the prices of your menu items.

Market your restaurant patio reopening

Use targeted restaurant marketing strategies to maximize the buzz and revenue generated from your patio reopening.

Consider creating new menu items or even a dedicated patio menu to celebrate the return of patio season. Frozen mocktails, for example, are festive, easy to create, and Instagram-worthy. 

If possible, extend your restaurant’s hours. If you’re a dinner-only restaurant, consider creating a new brunch menu. If you’re a breakfast and lunch spot, open up for dinner, too. Extending your hours and creating a dedicated patio menu will help maximize revenue and let customers experience your restaurant in a new way.

Once you’ve come up with some creative restaurant patio ideas for your venue, reach out to the local press to share the promotions that your restaurant is introducing for its patio reopening.

Even with the end of the pandemic in sight, outdoor dining gives restaurants that have been closed, or working in a diminished capacity, an opportunity to start welcoming customers back and make up for lost revenue. With the right safety measures and tech in place, restaurant patio dining can be a fruitful opportunity for your business. Learn how TouchBistro can equip your restaurant with the tools for a successful outdoor dining service.

Photo of Dana Krook
by Dana Krook

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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