Embrace the Outdoors with Smart Furniture Choices

Adding a successful outdoor dining space to your restaurant doesn’t just add seats, it adds loyal followers if you do it right. Our restaurateurs and design expert explain key things to consider before offering patrons an al fresco option.

Be Yourself

Before you order a slew of tables and chairs, think about your concept and the style of your existing décor. “Make sure the outdoor furniture is an integral part of the restaurant design scheme,” says Clare Marino, partner with GTM Architects Inc., in Bethesda, MD. “Furniture, artwork and décor should complement the look and feel of the menu and overall dining experience.”

For instance, do you serve big meals in a more formal setting? Consider traditional tables and chairs in wrought iron. More casual bar area? Resin wicker couches and tall café tables create a relaxed setting.

“Most of our patrons are joining us for drinks more than dinner,” says Jason Fletcher, owner of SIP Rooftop Lounge in Greenville, SC. Fletcher opted for wicker furniture with large cushions, and used wine barrels as the bases for tall tables. “It creates a wine room effect.”

Select Durable Goods

Consider your climate, and purchase furniture specifically designed for outdoor use. This ensures that it will stand up to sun exposure, rain, wind, and dirt, pollen and bird droppings. “Select outdoor furniture that can be cleaned easily without harsh chemicals,” says Marino. “There are many types of weatherproof and stain-resistant fabrics, durable plastics and coated metals on the market.” Be sure to review manufacturers’ care instructions and train staff on the proper cleaning products and techniques for your outdoor dining furnishings.

“We use wrought iron, which really stands up to the elements,” says David Picard, marketing manager with Wild Flower in St. Louis. “We paint it every year and it’s really held up.” An added benefit: It’s too heavy to be susceptible to wind or thieves.

Go with the Flow

Flow is just as critical to a successful outdoor dining experience as it is to an indoor one. Allow for more space between tables than you might inside. “Don’t overcrowd your space with tables and chairs,” advises Picard. “When people are outside, they tend to want to walk around and enjoy themselves.”

Also factor in the needs of your staff. Trips inside to fetch small items take time your servers could be spending with their customers, and can create a harried environment. “We installed an outside station for our servers to handle water and runs for silver, napkins and such,” says Picard. “That way they don’t have to run inside every time their customer needs something small.”

Embrace the Elements

There’s no getting around the challenges of Mother Nature. Heat waves, cold snaps, pouring rain and glaring sun are outdoor dining realities. So when it comes to your outdoor setup, it’s best to follow the Boy Scout code: Always be prepared. Consider outdoor heaters to take the chill off in early spring and late fall, and fans, misters and umbrellas for hot summer days.

“We’re installing a mister system this summer,” says Fletcher. “It uses flash evaporation technology, and it can make a 95-degree day feel more like 78.” Afternoon storms are commonplace during the South Carolina summers, so Fletcher devised a plan to keep SIP’s outdoor couches and chairs dry until the storms pass. “We keep a tarp behind each sectional, rolled up and tucked out of sight,” Fletcher explains. “In case of rain, the staff can run out and quickly cover the pieces to keep them dry.”

So select wisely. With the right furniture pieces, your restaurant’s al fresco dining space can go from a back patio afterthought to the main attraction of your restaurant, and the reason your customers return time and again.

Carolyn Evans has a long-running passion for innovative products, great design and interior decorating, and is a believer in retail therapy. After a session of reading insightful cocktail napkins, she decided to leverage her experience with start-up companies and financial institutions to build a career as a retail consultant for independent stores and young gift and apparel manufacturers across the Southeast. Carolyn is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She resides in Chapin, SC.

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