Outdoor seating carries a strong appeal for restaurant diners, particularly in the summer months. People love dining ‘al fresco’ in the open air when the sun is shining and the weather is warm, bringing with them a significant bump in profits. This can help restaurant managers as the food industry enters its “recession.”
Challenges Restaurants Face in Today’s Market
According to MarketWatch, a leading provider of stock, financial and business news, this recession is due to consumers cutting non-discretionary spending and eating out less, causing weak traffic for restaurants.
Moody’s Investors Service predicts an industry operating profit of 2-4% and expect fast-casual restaurants to outperform others. However, there are some fast-food chains, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, that are still currently losing sales.
Another issue is that food prices are going down, while restaurant prices are staying the same. It’s now cheaper to prepare food, but living costs are going up, so consumers may not want to eat out. Instead, these savings on food may go toward paying higher rents, insurance or health care bills.
Restaurant owners now have to attract customers who are trying to save more money, while minimizing any increase in operating costs. They also have to compete with fast-casual restaurants, which are predicted to be the top dogs in this current market. Although it may seem counter productive, expanding your restaurant – specifically by adding outdoor seating – can help increase profits.
Outdoor Seating as a Solution
If your restaurant has an outdoor area suitable for dining, such as a deck, patio, or even a grassy lawn, you should consider the very substantial benefits of having a restaurant canopy. In fact, Simons Advisory Group found a $200,000 investment could lead to $500,000 in sales. This study forecasted seasonal use, so year-round use could potentially yield even more profits.
Outdoor seating is also becoming increasingly popular around the country, with more people wanting to dine outside. More restaurants are making outdoor seating available, for example, in New Orleans, outdoor seating is becoming more popular as the downtown area is developed.
When you increase your dining capacity, there’s more opportunity for profits and greater revenue. Outdoor seating can increase revenue by up to 30 percent, according to studies. The return on your investment can be substantial and quick!
For example, if your establishment averages $25 per person, adding 30 seats with an outdoor canopy could bring $18,750 additional monthly revenue in only 25 days. Even adding 10 extra seats to your restaurant could bring in more than $6,000 per month in additional revenue. That’s not even taking into account the additional revenue based on your restaurant’s average table turn rate!
Additional Revenue Possibility @ $25/seat
|Additional Seats Occupied (per day)|
|Days with new Restaurant Canopy||15||$3,750||$5,625||$7,500||$9,375||$11,250|
Advantages to Having Outdoor Seating
Not only does a covered outdoor dining area quickly return on your investment in a canopy structure, but it can improve your guests’ experience better and more!
- Expanded Seating. Having more seats available also improves your guests’ dining experience because they may enjoy outdoor seating and won’t have to wait as long for a table during busy times. This increases your restaurants productivity because you can serve customers sooner and cut down wait times. If restaurants have long wait times, customers may leave and go somewhere else, so having minimal wait time is vital.
- Year-Round Useable Space. Unless your restaurant is located in a warmer climate, your ability to use outdoor dining areas in winter months or bad weather is restricted. However, a high-strength canopy can be enclosed to protect guests from wind and rain, and with cozy heaters, you can actually use your patio or deck dining space year-round, no matter what the climate!
- Improved Customer Experience. A covered outdoor seating area offers many aspects of an improved guest dining experience. During summer months and in good weather, the availability for outdoor seating is something many diners will appreciate, and may be enough to draw them to your establishment over a competitor’s. Additional benefits can include shade from the sun, enclosed dining on rainy or cold days, and a covered lounge and/or waiting area for guests to comfortably rest until their table is ready.
- Enhance Ambiance & Curb Appeal. A custom restaurant awning or canopy is often designed for elegance as well as functionality. You can even use custom designs to match or compliment your branding, complete with colors and graphics or logos. You can also use these structures to support pretty hanging plants and exterior lighting for ambiance. This will help draw customers in as they walk down the sidewalk, looking for a place to have dinner. In fact, the Chicago Tribune reported that sidewalk cafes and patos attract customers and boost sales by 10 to 30 percent.
Types of Structures Used for Outdoor Shelter
There are a few different types of structures you can use to provide shelter for your outdoor dining space. The most common options are: pergolas, patio umbrellas, awnings, and canopies.
A pergola is a structure that has trelliswork on the top and is supported by columns or posts. They are often used in gardens, and have vines or plants hanging from them, but have also been used in outdoor dining areas. You can string lights and place them on your restaurant’s patio.
Pergolas do require some foundation work. You have to dig a hole for each post (it’s easier with an excavator) and set the frame to attach the overhead beams to. These structures can be assembled within a day and don’t have strict requirements, since they don’t support much weight.
Pergolas are a good option if you want to add decor to an existing patio. It’s better suited to warm locations with predictable, pleasant weather since it offers no real covering or insulation.
Patio umbrellas provide shade and some protection from weather. They are made with weather resistant materials so that they last for a long time. They also are easy to set up, with no foundation requirements, and can include your restaurant logo.
Although patio umbrellas are easy to set up and have some customization options, they aren’t the best option for outdoor seating. This is because they are also limited to use in areas with pleasant weather like pergolas, or in other climates they can only be used seasonally. There is no protection from wind or insulation to keep people warm, so not all restaurants can use them.
An awning is a type of shelter attached to a building that extends over an outside space to provide protection. You can buy pre-made awnings and attach them to your building or have them custom made. Custom awnings would allow you to use your own color scheme and restaurant logo.
When building an awning you have a lot of options. The typical cost for an awning is an average of $1,264 – 3,500. Using metal framing can make an awning more sturdy, but you have less options with customization. Retractable awnings are another option, which helps protect it in the off-season or during bad weather days. You also could include side curtains to enclose the area.
Awnings are also better suited for pleasant weather climates because there is no insulation and can’t block wind if they don’t have curtains. In addition, some areas may have building requirements you must follow. For example, in Washington D.C. you need a permit to add an awning, which could add time to your project.
A canopy is usually a fabric or canvas covering that protects an outside area from the elements. Restaurants can also use canopies for their outside dining area. Since canopies are often enclosed, they make a great option for restaurants with less agreeable weather. Canopies can either be pre-engineered and store bought or custom made from a manufacturer.
Considerations When Purchasing a Canopy
Restaurant canopies are available off-the-shelf at many big box stores for a more readily available and economical structure. However, some restaurant owners may want to consider custom canopies because of their unique design and longer-lasting investment.
You can build a custom-designed canopy with almost any form, size, and shape needed to fit your restaurant’s outdoor dining area. Manufacturers can even add special features like color and graphics, to either match or compliment your restaurant’s design and branding. As you compare off-the-shelf restaurant canopies with a custom-designed structure, consider:
- Price: A pre-engineered restaurant gazebo or canopy is almost always a more affordable choice based on price alone. Buying off-the-shelf is probably the best option if you only plan to use your canopy seasonally or for rare use. You don’t need a custom canopy since longevity and durability will not be a factor in your investment choice.
- Availability: Since the time required to customize a unique canopy isn’t a concern with pre-engineered buildings, they are generally more readily available. You can acquire and set them up more quickly than a custom restaurant canopy. However, some custom canopy manufacturers can offer fast turnaround times, so ask about this as you compare building quotes.
- Durability: A restaurant canopy purchased off-the-shelf from your local hardware/home store is ideal for seasonal or sporadic uses. This is because it will not satisfy the strength requirements to last in permanent applications. Additionally, a custom-built restaurant canopy can be engineered or treated for greater durability. They can be equipped with systems for increased insulation, powder coating, enhanced abrasion resistance, and more.
- Customization: Of course, a pre-engineered restaurant canopy offers almost no options for customization. However, a high-end manufacturer can create a canopy in almost any size and form with virtually limitless add-on features.
Ideal Restaurant Canopy Materials
PVC and Polyethylene, the more affordable covering material options, are the most commonly used fabric materials for canopy manufacturers. Top-of-the-line restaurant canopies are made with highly engineered, composite polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fabric that covers an extremely durable framing system.
For example, some canopies are made with high-strength PVC fabric that covers either galvanized steel or anodized aluminum frames. Galvanized or coated metals use materials resistant to water to weather-proof and preserve them from rust. Builders can then use strong metals in their design to help it stand strong against the elements, such as steel.
Canopies such as these are built to last! When paired with expert design and engineering, these restaurant canopies withstand extreme weather conditions, from heavy snow to high winds. Some manufacturers even offer powder-coating for additional strength, or add-on insulation systems. This protects the tensioned fabric membrane against any R-value of thermal resistance.
Advantages of Portable Canopy Structures
From party tents to larger canopies big enough to serve as stage covers, manufacturers can offer restaurant owners numerous options. In addition to all of the benefits of restaurant canopies mentioned earlier in this guide, you should look for the following additional advantages of choosing a custom restaurant canopy:
- Versatile Uses
- Extensive & Customizable Design Options
- Incredible Strength & Longevity
- Energy Efficiency
- Easy Installation & Portability
While you’re limited to the structural space within your restaurant building itself, a tensioned fabric restaurant canopy offers more versatility. These canopies can serve as open-air gazebos and patio coverings, but can also be fitted with curtains, windows, doors and panels. These additions provide cozy, year-round dining space, protected from the elements.
With a custom restaurant canopy, there are more options for building a structure that’s uniquely suited to your restaurant’s needs. These options include custom size and form to fit your patio or deck area, as well as branded colors, special structural design features, add-on curtains and more. Some manufacturers can even add your logo and custom graphics, so your canopy can advertise in addition to providing space.
Custom canopies are also generally far stronger and more resilient than structures that you purchase off-the-shelf. While highly durable pre-engineered restaurant canopies exist, custom canopies can be made with stronger materials or upgraded with treatments for greater strength and longevity.
Do your research; some manufacturers specifically design their canopies to withstand heavy snow loads, high winds and extreme temperatures. In order to take advantage of the benefits of your restaurant canopy year-round, this added durability will be necessary. It will ensure reliable, secure coverage for your outdoor dining space if your restaurant is located in a harsher or more volatile climate.
Energy efficiency is another benefit of a custom-made canopy. Many manufacturers today are designing buildings made with eco-friendly, long-lasting materials to reflect UV rays and withstand extreme weather. This will keep energy bills down when you use your canopy in the winter months if it’s for use year-round.
Many custom restaurant canopies are still portable, despite being so strong and long-lasting. It’s a win-win, since these structures have more features and strength than off-the-shelf canopies but they still set up and ship easily. For restaurants who use their canopy seasonally, this kind of custom structure is ideal. You can easily pack it up and store it away for months you don’t need it or business slows down.
Other Design Strategies for Outdoor Seating
Here are some other tips to make sure you outdoor seating area is successful:
- Check local permit laws: Some laws may not allow sidewalk seating or may require special permits for outdoor patios. For example in Seattle, the dining area must be at least 5 feet from the curb to allow pedestrian traffic. The dining area also must be in front of the restaurant and have a barrier if serving alcohol.
- Find outdoor furniture: You want seating that is comfortable and stylish, but don’t forget about function. Ideally, choose furniture that can handle the elements or won’t make comfy homes for pests.
- Add outdoor lighting: Lighting can create a romantic atmosphere to attract couples out on dates. Lighting is also important so customers can see their meal and appreciate the visual appeal of your dishes.
- Give diners blankets: During the winter months, this is a nice touch and diners will appreciate it. You may want to consider outdoor heaters as well.
- Add plants: Plants are an inexpensive way to liven up any space. Be sure to use plants that like a lot of light since they will be out in the sun.
- Don’t forget music: Be sure to include any dining music you use in you main dining room. Music is also another way to create atmosphere, but make sure you don’t cause any noise pollution. Also, choose music that fits with your restaurant’s style, atmosphere, and branding.
- Use menu boards: Menu boards help attract customers to restaurants and advertise specials, especially with the option to be seated quickly outside to eat those delicious-sounding dishes.
Don’t Neglect Other Market Trends
While adding an outdoor seating area will attract more customers and profit, you must be able to handle and retain the new traffic. It’s important to stay up-to-date with market trends to know what diners are looking for as you draw them in.
Technology will be an important tool in your restaurant business. More restaurants are using online ordering, kiosks, and even taking payments on mobile devices. It might be worth getting a Square Reader so customers can pay the bill right when you bring it to them. It makes the transaction go faster and diners don’t have to wait around for the check.
Another trend to watch for “concept” dining. More diners have dietary preferences and knowledge of food and want to know what ingredients are in their food. You may want to include a list of ingredients under menu items and have options for gluten-free and vegetarian diners.
By watching trends and incorporating outdoor seating, your restaurant should fare better as the industry faces the challenges associated with its recession.