Canadians love the great outdoors, and restaurateurs across the country capitalize on that devotion by turning outdoor spaces into additional sources of income. We asked several Gordon Food Service experts to share a few tips for ensuring a successful patio season.
The key to a great patio, maintains Calgary-based Regional Sales Manager Una Larsen, is making it feel like its own little world whether it’s street-side, behind the building or on the rooftop, and whether it seats 20 or 200. “A patio should feel intimate and apart from the rest of the world, like you’re relaxing in your own backyard. Make your guests feel comfortable and indulged.”
Rooftop and backyard patios can feel secluded just by virtue of their placement, but streetside patios may take extra effort. “Landscaping plays a key role,” says Brent Jones, a Muskoka, Ontario-based District Sales Representative. One restaurant, he recalls, transformed a two-pump gas bar in front of its building into a 40-seat patio complete with gardens that shield diners from the busy intersection nearby. “These are now the most sought-after tables in the restaurant,”
Of course, seclusion isn’t always the objective. Sometimes you want to bring the outside in. “People-watching can be part of the patio experience,” Larsen says. “Use lattices, flowers and greenery to define and beautify your space while offering a clear view of people passing by.”
Lighting is important, especially for operations—such as the Longhorn Saloon & Grill in Whistler, British Columbia—at which patios are open year-round. So maintains District Sales Representative Gary Ramsay, based in Whistler. “It gets dark so early here in winter, we need good lighting to maximize the time people can spend outside,” points out Joey Gibbons, CEO of Gibbons Whistler, the hospitality group that operates Longhorn Saloon & Grill. Use Chinese lanterns, tea lights, string lights, tiki torches and other options to provide illumination and enhance your patio’s ambiance.
“Don’t just use the same furniture as you have inside,” Larsen advises. Outdoor tables and chairs should be more durable to stand up to the weather. Still, make sure your patio furniture is appropriate to your brand; folding plastic chairs are probably not the right choice for an upscale eatery.
Wanting a patio seat doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to sit in the blazing sun. Provide shady spots via table umbrellas, retractable awnings, trellises and roof extensions. Misting systems will help guests keep cool and comfortable when the temperature soars. When the temperature dips, “Well-placed heaters and wind breaks can extend the patio season by up to six weeks,” says Jones. If the forecast is truly dire, be prepared to close the patio until things clear up—and make the call before seating anyone there.
If you have the space, consider adding recreational elements. Games, music, TVs and other entertainment options encourage patrons to linger—and order even more high-profit beverages.
“Whether you’ll have dedicated outdoor staff and facilities really depends on the size of your patio,” Larsen says. If the same staff covers both indoor and outdoor spaces, make sure they’re just as attentive to patio diners. Consider building direct access to the kitchen for patio servers. Train servers to check in with tables to push drinks, sharing plates and desserts. “People tend to stay longer outdoors, so you don’t turn tables as often,” she adds. “But nobody gets mad if you ask them if they want another beer.”
“Patio season is tight and the competition is fierce, so play up your outdoor space,” Larsen says. “Social media is a great way to do it.”
Delivering a great patio experience may be the best promotion—many local papers publish “best patio” lists at the start of the season. Ultimately, though, delivering a great patio experience may be the best promotion, and word travels fast.
The profitability of your patio depends on how big it is and how much effort you put into it, Ramsay says. “Do it right and patio tables will be the most sought-after in your restaurant.”
The perennial patio
Longhorn Saloon & Grill in operates a year-round patio. The patio, located just steps away from the base of Whistler Mountain, is perfectly positioned to tempt both cold-weather skiers and warm-weather bikers.
“We work hard to create comfort for our guests no matter what the temperature is,” Gibbons says. Misters, umbrellas, heaters, fire pits and fireplaces are employed as needed. With seating for 360 patrons on its patio, Longhorn Saloon & Grill maintains a separate outdoor bar and serving staff. “But the kitchen is inside, so we have food runners going back and forth.”
The patio also incorporates large-screen TVs and plays host to live bands and DJs. It’s a significant investment, but well worth it, according to Gibbons. “The patio adds about 40 to 45 percent to our bottom line every year.”
A garden of delights
Outdoor spaces are an essential part of the guest experience at National Beer Halls, a chain of four restaurants in Calgary. Two of the four have rooftop patios—including a massive 550-person space at National on 8th—and the other two have perimeter patios.
The patios evoke the feel of a beer garden, says Jon Molyneux, VP of Operations for Concorde Group, the entertainment and hospitality company behind National. “We run all 60 of our beer taps up to the roof at National on 8th. It has a separate full kitchen, four bars and four washrooms. It also offers pingpong tables, cornhole games and great views of downtown Calgary.”
Retractable awnings, umbrellas and heaters help keep guests comfortable during a season Molyneux characterizes as “Short, but great for the bottom line. People tend to be a little thirstier in the sunshine.”