10 outdoor dining tips to offer the best experience

Restaurant customers sitting at a table outdoor

Of the many issues raised during this global pandemic, one constantly debated question is how to bring people back to the CBD around the country. As so many people now work from home, the once hectic buzz of many city centres has ground to a halt. 

In Melbourne and across the country, one proposed solution is to introduce outdoor dining through city streets and laneways. The idea raises new considerations, from logistics of furniture placement to addressing service flow with each business – and just how to tackle plans is yet to be determined. 

Whether you are taking advantage of new city regulations or looking for ways to seat more diners outside, now is the time to plan for the season ahead. Here are 10 tips to start and expand your outdoor dining experience:

1. Take advantage of relaxed permits

The City of Melbourne recently announced fast-tracked outdoor dining permits to provide hospitality venues with more options to serve guests safely when restrictions ease. On October 6, Sydney also announced a new outdoor dining initiative, in which venues can apply for al fresco licences without planning approval. 

2. Start slow, then grow

Michelle Grand-Milkovic, co-owner of the waterfront seafood restaurant Love.Fish in Sydney’s Barangaroo, has seen a steady – if reduced – stream of customers over weekends, and the number of weekday diners have diminished significantly.

She realises it will take time to grow the number of diners to the restaurant on weekdays, but slow growth on weekends is a plus. She sees the opening of more outdoor dining in the city as a positive. “We need to devise ways to bring people back into the city. It’s great businesses in the suburbs are doing well with people working from home, however the city has been hit hard and this is a step in the right direction.” 

Grand-Milkovic does admit that it will be hard for everyone while borders are shut: “Because there are no interstate travellers or businesses operating from around here, we’re all now fighting over the same market, the same pool of people, the Sydney-siders.” 

3. Embrace your surroundings

There may not be much infrastructure in your business for outdoor dining, but if it is going to increase revenue, look at what you have to work with. Can you share space with a neighbouring business? Are there structures such as flooring, canopies, or furniture that can be utilised to create even a small outdoor space for drinks and snacks? Embrace the spaces and people around you to enhance your opportunities. 

4. Heed safety and distancing guidelines

When it comes to outdoor dining at Love.Fish, Michelle recommends listening to customers as well as following COVID-safe regulations. 

“Our waiters don’t wear masks, as it makes our customers feel uncomfortable,” she says. “But our food runners, who put the food on the table, do wear them. Policies are clear and waiters stand back from the table and don’t breathe or speak if they have to lean over the table. Everything is disposable, including cutlery, napkins, menus and tables and chairs are sanitised.”  

5. Adjust your food and drink menu

Especially when first starting outdoor dining, consider scaling down your food menu to house favourites and adding new items over time. Prioritise your best-selling items, as well as those that will maintain quality at outdoor temperatures.

If your kitchen is located a distance away from the outdoor dining area, you will need to consider how plates and trays will be carried by runners. Sustainable single-use items can be a good alternative to avoid potential breakages.

6. Plan for all types of weather

With South Australian borders closed early during lockdown, SeaSalt on Adelaide’s Henley Beach is thriving while catering to a local dining audience. Owner Ben Kelly says, “It’s about how the weather is handled. There’s heat, wind and rain, but you batten down the hatches when you need to and offer the best protection you can.”

7. Set expectations with guests up front

As we move through this pandemic and outdoor dining becomes a reality, communication is key. Your business’s website should have very clear details on how the customer can engage with your business. When they book, either online or over the phone, be sure to clearly outline the boundaries within which you have to operate. This communication will build trust and create a smooth experience for both staff and guests.. 

8. Create an atmosphere that reflects your brand

So much work is put into planning and establishing your brand, and outdoor dining should extend the hospitality that guests know you for.

Furniture, table settings, opening hours, the menu offering, how service can be executed – all of these factors reflect the voice and sentiments you have spent so much time nurturing. For inspiration, return to your restaurant’s voice, business mission, and vision.

9. Extend your floor plan outside.

In OpenTable, you can categorise existing tables as outdoor, add new outdoor tables to your existing floor plan, or create an entirely new plan for your outdoor seating. Here’s how.

By carefully managing your tables outdoors, you can more accurately adjust your reservation availability. Making outdoor tables reservable allows you to set expectations with guests, so they know they’ll get the royal treatment that they’re used to inside your restaurant. 

Plus, outdoor reservations provide more predictability around how many guests you’ll seat, so you can order accurately and avoid both waste and unexpected crowds. You can even do more turns in a service by keeping every table status up to date.

10. Get the word out. 

Many guests are eager to dine at restaurants again, but they don’t always know that their favourites are open for business, or how they have adapted safely. Post photos of your new spaces and menus on your social media channels and other online profiles (including your OpenTable photo gallery) to show people what they can expect from the experience.  

Diners will be looking for more outdoor seating options in the months ahead.