Summertime and patio dining are practically synonymous. Sharing a frosty bottle of rosé with friends outdoors on a Sunday afternoon is one of life’s easy, unmatched pleasures. If you were designing a recipe for losing track of time, happy hour frozens below a canopy umbrella would be a main ingredient.
For diners, a patio feels like a simple luxury. For restaurant operators, they can be equally rich. Patios entice more people to drop in, stay longer, and spend more. Your returns will vary depending on a raft of different factors — the local cost of permitting and building out a patio, your ambitions in which materials and features to include, and the quality of your backyard’s weather — but suffice it that a patio, done right, can juice your restaurant sales. If you want to do some math for yourself, a canopy company called ShadeFX has a nifty online return-on-investment calculator you can plug some figures into. Or you can consider a business analysis by hospitality advisors VSAG Consulting, which found in 2013 that a particular $200,000 patio investment could generate $500,000 in sales. Again, lots of different moving parts there, but the lesson for everyone is to take the patio seriously. Done right, it can make bank.
What are the key elements in designing and building out a patio, then? You’re going to want to consider your budget, your available space, relevant local ordinances, the storage capacity you have for outdoor furniture (if you have to store it), the sorts of fixtures and amenities you want to include for your staff. And, yes, the weather. Your open-air Sioux City patio might not generate the same returns as the covered oceanfront deck in San Diego. Or you may find that a place to sit outside, even during single-digit windchill, can set you apart — that’s what little dining igloos are for, anyway. And fortunately the Japanese have been perfecting heated dining tables for some time now.
Your customers might also be heartier than you expect. During the past two years, millions of people went stir-crazy enough sitting inside that getting outside (for reasons of physical or mental health) still feels like a premium experience. Many cities recognized the need for outdoor dining as a source of revenue and a source of dignity, and have waived permitting fees. Covid hasn’t been kind to restaurants on the whole, but if it does save you a couple of grand in permitting, you might do well to take advantage of the sale.
If you’re going maximal on your patio, you’ve got some big decisions to make regarding furniture, roofing, and installing water and gas lines (the latter for outdoor propane heaters). Whether the roof has a hard or soft top, rolls away or cantilevers, all depends on your budget, the vibes of the establishment, and the proclivities of your local precipitation. Many of these decisions will be between you, your architect, and the weatherman.
For everyone trying to do more on their own, though, you can follow some basic best practices, especially when you’re dealing with an imperfect setup. Take the “parklet” seating areas that popped up by the thousands around New York during the pandemic. Most of them were borne out of a racing impulse to add seating in any manner possible, and accordingly, many of them are downright janky, not much more than a painted plywood shack erected curbside or a smattering of chairs and tables roped off from the street. It’s easy to make them hospitable, though. Suzan Wines, a partner at I-Beam Architecture, suggests using plants as a way to make unconventional spaces more inviting and soothing. Even plywood in the street can feel elegant with enough greenery. Odds are high you have a Millennial or a Zoomer on staff who already knows how to parent plants and would love to pitch in. Odds are also high that you could get away with buying fake plants, in a pinch.
If you’re trying to turn an asphalt patch into a dining room, you want to think in terms of colors and textures. A variety of both will instantly make a space feel lived-in, and human, on a budget. Fiona Sanipelli, a founding partner of Handwerk Art + Design, recommends using new and vintage pieces to dress up otherwise bland outdoor spaces. Adding umbrellas, for one, will offer shade along with visual color and depth. Gussy up older furniture with fresh accents, perhaps adding eye-catching pillows to an older lounge chair or sofa for a new feel. Adding vintage pieces make even older touches feel intentional. You’re playing jazz here, after all, and intention counts for a lot in this game. As a general rule, Sanipelli says, stackable chairs are more comfortable than folding chairs, but you can mix them so long as your crowd isn’t there just for dinner or just for drinks.
Don’t be afraid to add plants pots or in planters as dividers for an added touch of greenery. If your space is very sunny, make your plant options edibles. Herbs, pansies, cornflowers, lavender, marigolds all thrive in the sun and make colorful additions to foods and drinks.
You can always decide what, to you, a patio is. Maybe what works for your particular setup is a big ol’ roll-up door that makes the dining room feel more airy and which makes some outdoor sidewalk seating feel like part of the dining room. Maybe a patio to you is an assortment of fenced-in folding tables outside the back door. Or maybe you’ve got ideas that no one else has even thought of yet.
In Gainesville, Florida, a cocktail spot called Cry Baby’s maximized its outdoor space by adding a counter level “shelf” to the railing, plus a few light bar stools. Since they are dealing with a young, free-floating clientele, people stand and munch banh mi hot dogs or crispy calamari tacos, and have a place to set their drinks without limiting themselves to a bunch of tables squeezed together. This is a fairly common setup in Spain, and the tapas vibe is also a judicious use of the limited space, it works well in the context of cocktails and bar foods. It also saves the establishment from having to buy, and subsequently store, a bunch of tables and chairs.
If all you have to work with is a sidewalk (and you aren’t inspired by tapas culture), awnings can help make a cafe feel more inviting and allow you more control than an umbrella while offering shade and rain cover. An awning also psychologically makes outdoor tables feel more included in the restaurant.
You might also be in the business lately of tricking out your own piece of a city street. At Meadowsweet, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they’ve built a custom structure as a three-alcove parklet in a pretty sea foam green. Guests are protected from the elements on five sides — the inclusion of the flooring goes a long way toward making the experience feel special. The staff modifies the structure with custom fabric shades and oscillating fans in the summer and with mounted overhead heaters in the winter. And they use an ingenious combination of living and fake plants to give it that year-round feeling of life. Careful, thoughtful touches such as these make for a memorable experience.
Not to drive back into the weather talk yet again, but it’s going to be your patio’s best friend and its worst enemy. The top culprit here is the sun itself. Notice where the shade moves around your patio, and plan accordingly to make sure your patrons aren’t being roasted at lunch hour or blinded by a low sunset at happy hour. You might want to consider some electric fans and possibly some misting systems, if your summer temps like to spike higher than the low 80s.
Because I grew up waiting tables in Miami, I’m basically an amateur meteorologist. I would sit in the office staring at the weather channel website trying to determine if we could set up the patio or if we had to wait until after the 3pm downpour. One cloudburst is all it takes to overrule your eclectic mix of pillowed seating, a rolled-up awning, or a leaky umbrella. What we didn’t have to contend with was actual winter. If you plan on setting up for year-round or near year-round outdoor dining, you need to invest in some heaters. These are going to run anywhere from $200-$2,000 apiece, and your options are vast. Again you have to store the things safely (check your local ordinances) and be realistic. They only put off so much heat and you don’t have a structure to trap the warm air, it’s only the people closest who will benefit. And the point of a patio, in any weather, is to be able to relax.