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COVID-19 Restaurant Resources

How to Prepare Your Restaurant for Your Patio Reopening


Dana Krook

The coronavirus pandemic shut down restaurants’ dine-in service for most of the spring of 2020. But as we enter the summer, restaurants can finally offer their customers a taste of pre-pandemic dining – it’s time for your patio reopening!

Cities around North America are allowing restaurants to welcome customers back with outdoor dining. Patio dining lets restaurants generate revenue while keeping customers and staff safe, since the risk of contracting the virus outdoors is much lower than in an enclosed space. 

If your area has given the green light for patio dining, you should consider offering the option to your customers. This guide to patio dining will teach you:

  • The benefits of offering outdoor restaurant seating service
  • Restaurant patio ideas for what to do before your patio 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 

In the age of COVID-19, outdoor dining is a better, safer option than serving customers in an enclosed dining room. 

1. Outdoor dining is a less risky alternative to indoor dining. 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 they are less risky

2. Patio dining can ease customers’ anxieties about going to restaurants. In a recent survey by the online publication Slate, 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.

3. Outdoor dining presents an opportunity for restaurants to maximize revenue. In areas where indoor dining isn’t allowed, patio dining lets you regain full service dining as a revenue stream. And in areas where capacity limitations wouldn’t make it profitable for you to reopen your indoor dining space, outdoor dining may be a better option.

4. Restaurants might be able to rehire some staff to support patio dining. This helps staff who have been let go due to pandemic-induced restaurant closures, and benefits the economy as a whole by lowering unemployment.

Before you open your restaurant patio, check if you’ll need a permit or license to do so.

Fortunately, some 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. Some cities are even closing down streets to create new spaces for outdoor dining. 

Woman and man dining at separate tables on a restaurant patio

5 Steps to Prepare Your Restaurant for Patio Reopening Season

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

1. Prepare the physical space

Use these restaurant patio ideas to create a space that allows guests and staff to maintain social distancing measures.

If you’re launching outdoor dining for the first time, you may have to purchase outdoor furniture. Opt for wooden outdoor furniture over plastic, since some research shows that the coronavirus can’t survive as long on wood as on plastic. 

As you prepare your outdoor space, consider capacity limits. Set up your tables accordingly. Move tables so that they’re at least six feet apart, if not more, to allow customers to move between them. 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.

Before you put a tent up around your patio, check out local regulations about them. 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. If you install a tent on your patio, make sure that it doesn’t reduce air circulation. 

Create dedicated entrances and exits to your restaurant patio to prevent unnecessary foot traffic. Add directional arrows on the floor with tape to ensure that guests know where to go.

If you have space to safely create a waiting area, put signs on the floor to mark off 6-feet 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.

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. 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 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 process and schedule that ensure that high traffic areas are cleaned often. Include wiping down tables and seats after customers leave a table.

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 to a restaurant during a pandemic.

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 the 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 reservations software, contactless payment readers, 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.
  4. Minimize contact with other employees, using specific workstations (BOH) and a flow to move around the restaurant (FOH). For BOH, if employees cannot work six feet apart, 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 properly, ensuring they know when to change them (frequently), how to take them off, and how to discard them.
  9. Wear masks properly, from the entire nose down to the chin. Masks should fit snugly on the sides. Even if masks aren’t 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 through outdoor dining, make sure they know about your reopening. Spread the word through social media, email, and your Google listing. Include new rules and safety procedures in these announcements so that customers know you’re committed to their safety. 

Post signage around your outdoor dining space to remind customers to maintain a safe distance from others and wear masks before being seated and when entering the restaurant to use the restroom. Train your staff to enforce these safety measures to create a safe 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 possible, safe, and legal 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’s 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.

Two groups of diners sitting at socially distanced tables on a restaurant patio

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 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. 

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 costs before the pandemic, those figures are probably no longer applicable to the current situation. Keep a close eye on POS reports around your 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 marketing tactics to maximize the buzz and revenue generated from your patio reopening.

Consider creating new menu items to celebrate 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 will help maximize revenue and let customers experience your restaurant in a new way.

Reach out to the local press to share the promotions that your restaurant is introducing for its patio reopening.

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

Dana is the 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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