What To Consider When Creating Al Fresco Dining
There’s a few questions that need to be answered in planning out an outdoor dining area:
- What is the dining experience you want to facilitate?
- What is the footprint of your outdoor space?
- The climate of your restaurant’s location
- What is your budget?
Here’s why these questions are important.
The Desired Dining Experience
The biggest consideration here is making sure that your patio furniture and layout are designed to facilitate the dining experience you want to provide for your guests.
For example, imagine you have a fast casual restaurant that operates at a high customer volume and gets the most business during lunch. You serve your food in reusable baskets with wax paper, and the drinks come in bottles, cans, or disposable cups.
The tableware for your customers is minimum and you want to be able to fit as many people as possible comfortably in your patio area.
Given your cuisine and restaurant type, it makes a lot of sense to have relatively small, 2-4 person tables throughout the patio.
Now imagine those same tables attempting to service a 5-course dinner with 10-13 pieces of tableware.
That would be an absolute nightmare. The tables would be jammed full with no room for a comfortable dining experience, and guests would feel forced to rush through courses to clear space for new tableware.
Simply put, the first consideration in planning out the outdoor seating area for your restaurant is the experience you want to deliver. Every additional decision needs to support the desired dining experience.
Seating Area Size And Layout
The next consideration is the size and layout of your outdoor dining area.
Let’s say you have a large, open-spaced area behind your restaurant. Picnic tables would be a great option. They seat many people, are easy to maintain, have a charming vibe, and last for years.
If your outdoor area is near the restaurant entrance and shares the sidewalk with passing pedestrians, you’ll need to be very selective about the seating you choose.
Purchasing bulky tables and chairs might cause your guests to spill out too far into the sidewalk, interrupting foot traffic. The city could get involved and ask you to purchase all new furnishings that are more appropriate for the location.
Local Weather Requirements
Local weather is also a significant deciding factor when choosing outdoor seating.
Whatever style you decide on, the pieces will need to be able to live outside for years at a time without degrading.
Most restaurants don’t have the space to store outdoor furniture inside, so it will need to be built for the long haul, that way, you’re not buying new tables and chairs every few years.
This also means avoiding buying cushions, padded chairs, or umbrellas that can easily get damaged by rain or any other inclement weather. It only takes a couple of downpours to ruin your beautiful pastel seat cushions.
Wherever you live, plan according to the weather, and you’ll be prepared for what comes your way.
Budget To Match Your Branding
Budget is obviously a big factor, but I want to give you a specific aiming point here.
The important thing is that your outdoor seating area matches the branding of your restaurant.
If you have very high end interior furnishings, putting cheap furniture in your patio is going to stand out like a sore thumb and hurt both your brand and the dining experience delivered to people who want to eat outside.
At the same time, even if you have a generally no-frills brand, you want to provide a functional outdoor dining experience: comfortable chairs, tables that don’t wobble, non-leaky overhead coverage, and umbrellas that don’t mold when they have to be put away after a hard rain.
If your budget feels concerning, the best plan is to just start with the basics:
- Lights (if open after dark)
These pieces are the staples of any outdoor dining experience, and incidentally, we are going to cover each one in the next section of this guide.
Start With Comfortable Chairs
Seating is the heart of your... seating area. See what I did there.
The chairs you choose need to be three things:
- Easy to move
- Nice looking
- Weather-proof or storable
You must get comfortable chairs. Typically, the larger the chair, the more comfortable it is, because it has more space for cushioning and in some cases, for adjusting the chair to fit the user.
Think of a large chair as an “hour chair”, meaning people can comfortably sit in the chair for an hour.
If you run a fine dining establishment, you’ll probably need “hour chairs” since service for guests will take at least an hour or longer from beginning to end because you’re serving multiple courses.
A cafe or bistro will want to look at buying “30-minute chairs.”—smaller seats that are comfortable for about a half-hour.
Not only are these chairs smaller so you can fit more guests on your footprint, but it encourages folks not to linger too long.
Tables that “camp out” are notorious for not buying more food and drinks and instead get involved in long-winded conversations.
“30-minute chairs” help you to turn tables faster and make more money as a result.
Chairs are made from all kinds of materials but primarily come in metal, wood, and plastic.
They need to be durable, weatherproof, and at least semi-light weight, so staff and guests don’t have to wrestle the chair to move it around.
The Bronze Powder-Coated Aluminum and Steel Arm Chair is designed specifically for outdoor use. Its neutral color helps it blend with the natural surroundings of being outside and will match most restaurants’ decor.
The chairs are stackable, so it’s easy for staff to quickly close the patio at night if chairs need to be put away.
If you’re in an area with lots of petty crime, lock up your chairs and tables at night if possible. People might appreciate your sense of taste so much they think it’ll look good on their own back porch.
We like this chair because it’s simple, lightweight, and stackable, and since it’s made from polypropylene and fiberglass, it’ll last forever. Because of their simple design, they’ll be super easy to clean as well, and there’s a UV additive that protects them from fading in prolonged exposure to the sun.
They are a very affordable price and come in five different colors— black, white, green, blue, orange, and gray.
I really like these chairs for a few reasons. One is the woven fabric for the seat.
It’s not a cushion, but it acts like a cushion because the woven material has a soft give to it; you aren’t sitting on hard metal, which can become uncomfortable.
I also like that it looks like bamboo but is aluminum painted to resemble bamboo.
This means that it’s extremely durable and will last you for years. They’re lightweight and stackable for easy storage or securing at the end of the night if you need to lock them up.
They come in six different colors, but be aware there’s a slight price difference depending on the color selected.
Stools are necessary if you have an outdoor bar top or high tables built to give guests the option of standing. High tables are popular at bars and beer gardens because of the high-energy atmosphere where sitting down the whole time isn’t always comfortable.
I worked at a place for years that uses the stools, and I think they’re great. Occasionally the footrest bar would break, but that only happened maybe once a year, and overall they are great stools.
Each has a drain hole in the seat so water won’t pool up if it rains, and they’ll dry quickly. The stools stand at 30” high, and the footrest bar makes it easy to sit, so there’s no discomfort in your legs dangling.
Each stool receives an e-coating to protect it from rust, and they come in 18 different colors.
Lightweight and stackable, I would keep them behind the bar once we closed, and when we opened, they were very easy to put back in place on the patio.
Here’s the same great barstool but with a slate back added for extra support.
It doesn’t mention whether or not it’s stackable, which could be a deal-breaker for some people, but it’s still an awesome stool that will last you for years.
It comes in 17 different colors, but you should be aware that there’s a small amount of assembly required as you’ll need to attach the back slate to the stool. The company does this to save you money on shipping.
Select Sturdy Tables
Selecting the correct table is just as important, if not more important, than your chair selection.
Tables will take up the bulk of your outdoor space, so it’s important you create a layout that allows for the most amount of seats possible while at the same time being easy for staff to navigate the spaces in between.
Tables will come in either square, rectangle, or round shapes and can be any size you could possibly imagine.
Also, be sure to buy tables and chairs that pair well together. It would be confusing and jarring to see beautiful rustic tables coupled with neon lime green chairs that were purchased because the price was significantly reduced.
Unless they’re a permanent fixture, make sure your tables are lightweight enough to be moved by at least two workers. It will become a burden if, every night when closing, you have to pull all of front-of-house together to help bring in the heavy tables.
These tables are affordable and recognizable as a classic shape and size for outdoor dining.
You can choose from 12 different colors, so you’ll be able to match your decor easily, and if you buy ten or more, there’s a price break.
The umbrella hole means the table itself will act as the weighted base for the umbrella to keep it in place. There’s a tightening knob at the top of the base under the table’s surface to help secure it in place.
Locations with high winds should probably steer clear of using umbrellas with these tables. If there’s a strong enough gust of wind, the entire table could become airborne, which would be costly and potentially dangerous.
The aluminum build with a faux teak top means these tables are waterproof, rust-proof, and resistant to the sun. An investment that will last you for years without degrading because of outdoor elements.
The black trim and faux teak top look great and can easily match most chairs.
The X prong base gives excellent stability while at the same time giving guests lots of leg room under the table as opposed to a traditional four-legged table which tends to get in the way when everyone scoots in to eat.
If you like this table's look but need it in multiple sizes, you’re in luck. It comes in four sizes that should fit most outdoor dining footprints.
Picnic tables are a great option when you have a lot of space or are going for a specific aesthetic.
Beer gardens love to use picnic tables because it creates a communal feeling. Sitting down elbow to elbow with complete strangers is acceptable because that’s what people expect in a bar-like setting.
The wood and steel frame table is especially nice because it’s easy to sit down at them.
Traditional “A-frame” style wooden tables can be wonky to sit in sometimes, especially for tall people who have to bend their legs in odd ways to get in the seat.
These tables are heavy-duty and will live in the place they are set. The pressure-treated wood is resistant to termites, fungus, and rot.
Bar height tables are great when you’re trying to break up the pattern on a patio footprint, so it doesn’t feel one-dimensional.
Bar height tables are also great when there’s a view from your outdoor dining space.
It keeps your guests' sightline above any potted plants or natural vegetation so they can take in the view that was probably a big factor when deciding to dine at your restaurant.
This teak wood table is sleek and low profile while also built to withstand the outdoors and heavy use. The neutral and natural colors won’t conflict with most modern restaurants’ décor.
Set Up Umbrella Coverage
If you don’t have a permanent roof for your outdoor seating area, umbrellas are a non-negotiable.
We all know that umbrellas keep us out of the rain, but given people tend to stay inside when it rains, it’s actually more important that your umbrellas are equipped to shield guests from the sun on nice days.
Avoid cloth and canvas-covered umbrellas if you live in an area with lots of rain. Once wet, they tend to mold quickly if not dried off properly.
Many umbrella tops are made from polyester, which is also prone to mold, but most are treated to be mold resistant.
Another thing to look for is the umbrella's ability to pivot and cast a shadow in the same spot as the sun moves across the sky throughout the day.
You’ll also need to consider umbrella bases. Bases anchor the umbrellas to the ground and can be filled with water or sand.
This umbrella is affordable and excellent if you have a table with an umbrella hole.
There’s an air vent at the top of the umbrella to allow air to pass through when there’s sudden gusts of wind. This vent increases the stability of the umbrella. It comes in four bold colors and is easy to open and close.
The only drawback is that it doesn’t have any pivot points, so as the sun goes lower in the sky, you won’t be able to tilt the top to block the sun. The base will need to be purchased separately.
This is a beautiful umbrella made from Sunbrella’s patented “never fade” fabric. The fabric is different because the color is consistent to the core of each fiber.
Typically, the fabric is dyed to the desired color and as weather and the sun fade the dye, the fabric's original color is revealed.
The frame, pole, and base are made from aluminum and powder coated to protect them from the elements. The weighted base comes with wheels and handles, so it’s easy for staff to move.
To adjust the umbrella, there’s a hand crank system that is simple to use, and because of multiple leverage points, you’ll be able to move the umbrella to block the sun precisely.
The umbrella comes in graphite, cast silver, and white sand colors.
If you’re looking for some truly impressive high-end umbrellas, look no further than Bambrella.
Bambrella outfits some of the finest hotels, restaurants, and luxury resorts in the world with their high-quality umbrellas. They boast that they have “the strongest commercial umbrellas in the world.”
If you only want to buy umbrellas once, then this is your company.
There are eight styles of umbrellas to choose from, so you’ll find an option for any situation. Since they are custom-made, you can decide on fabric, colors, and designs.
The “Bam” part of Bamrella stems from nearly all their umbrellas being made from sustainable bamboo. There are options for pure aluminum umbrellas if that suits your aesthetic better. Each piece comes with a base to hold the umbrella in place.
Arrange Beautiful Lighting
If your restaurant stays open past dark, proper lighting can really bring your patio to life.
Think of when you go to a concert.
Seeing the band play on stage is great, but when the light show kicks in, it elevates the whole experience. The same happens with your outdoor area, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Let’s look at some lighting options to make your patio come alive.
String lights can change your patio’s ambiance into a warm, inviting, and intimate setting. Even from a distance, a patio lit with string lights looks like the place to be.
This string comes in a 330ft and is built to withstand the great outdoors.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to buy bulbs to fill this string. The good news about buying bulbs is that you’ll have control over the style, hue, or even color to set the mood to match your restaurant.
String lights are the most efficient way to light your outdoor area since the lights work together to illuminate the space fully. It’s also the most cost-effective and thorough.
Plus, they look really cool.
Table lamps work great to create that date night vibe that lots of people enjoy. These lamps are battery-powered, so you don’t need to worry about people burning themselves while trying to get the same ambiance as candle lighting.
The drawback is that you’ll need to keep lots of batteries on hand. These will work best when paired with string lights set at a low level.
Bonus Additions To Improve Your Patio
After investing in the essentials for your patio, you might consider purchasing a few things to make your guests feel more comfortable and deepen the experience of eating at your restaurant.
Outdoor heaters are a must if you plan on keeping your outdoor dining space open year round.
Even if it stays warm most of the year, there will be chilly nights that keep some guests inside, but others will remember that your restaurant gives them the chance to still dine outdoors while there’s a bite to the air.
I’ve used these heaters, and they keep a decent amount of outdoor space warm.
The mushroom-style top reflects heat really well and should be able to keep people warm, even up to six feet away.
Be prepared to have storage for propane tanks.
You’ll need storage for backup and empty tanks. Backups are important because you don’t want to run out of heat on a busy weekend night. People will want to move inside if that happens, and if the dining room is full, you’ll have a lot of angry customers.
The wall mount capabilities of this heater make it ideal for a lot of outdoor spaces. You’ll be able to position the heaters to target specific tables or sections.
People report that the cost of electricity is really low, so you don’t have to worry about the hassle of a propane service or the cost of propane, which isn’t cheap.
These heaters are easy to mount to the existing building, or you could strategically place mounting poles throughout your patio. The poles could also double as anchors for string lights.
Music helps craft the atmosphere inside and outside of a restaurant. Music dictates the energy level and tells people how to feel, even on a subconscious level.
Music also helps to create a buffer between table conversations, local traffic, and the overall noises of running a restaurant.
If I walk into a restaurant and I hear rock n’ roll, I know that my server will be upbeat, the service will likely be fast, the food will be geared towards pizza and burgers, and they’ll probably have a pretty decent beer selection.
If symphony music greats me as I walk through the door, then I know it’ll be a more refined setting that moves at a slightly slower pace, the food will come in smaller portions, and the wine list will be impressive.
These speakers are built to live indoors and outdoors and will blend in and feel like part of the decor.
If ten speakers is overkill for a smaller outdoor space, you’ll be able to move the pendant speakers to cover the indoor area, so music blends seamlessly from inside to outside.
If you have a restaurant that hands out numbers to be called with each order for the guest to pick up, there is a built-in paging system that allows you to call over the speakers without disrupting the music.
Tents And Canopies
In a post-pandemic world, some guests will feel more comfortable eating outdoors for the foreseeable future.
Providing this accommodation means using tents that can enclose when the cold weather comes. Use space heaters to keep guests warm while they dine in the safety of the outdoors. Remember not to use propane heaters in enclosed areas.
During the summer, you’ll have ample shade to cover your outdoor dining area, and once the cold weather and rain hit, you’ll be able to create a barrier to the elements with the enclosure kit.
With the enclosure kit in place, you’ll be able to use heaters to keep customers warm. The tent isn’t insulated, so it won’t warm like an indoor space, but the walls keep the wind off, and anyone sitting inside will have a good time.
Fences are a great way to add to the outdoor decor and look nice when done well.
Some cities allow restaurants to set up seating in part of the street (check with your local government before doing so). Pedestrians will still need to use the sidewalk between the street seating and the restaurant entrance.
Fencing prevents walkers from stepping off the sidewalk and moving amongst guests, weaving between tables to avoid other walkers at busy times.
Lots of outdoor patios share a common ground with walkers, and fences provide security that keeps the two separated.
Built to withstand all kinds of weather, these are durable and long-lasting.
They are UV resistant, so they won’t fade, and because of the resin material, they’ll never rust, splinter or rot. You won’t be required to sand, paint, or refinish, which occurs with wood fencing. Just powerwash them once a season, and they’ll last for years.
These latticework panels do not include the posts or bases that interlock the panels together and keep the fence stable, so we put that link here.
Outdoor dining has many benefits; increased capacity during the busy summer months, a relaxed atmosphere for customers, a pet-friendly space for animal lovers, event opportunities like live music, and the best benefit, increased revenue.
When setting up your outdoor seating, keep in mind that the more seats you can fit, the more money you’ll be able to generate. That said, make sure you don’t overcrowd your guests. Leave enough space between tables to allow your staff and guests to pass each other simultaneously.
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