The ins and outs of running an outdoor dining operation - SmartBrief

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The ins and outs of running an outdoor dining operation

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice


Last winter’s blizzards and arctic blasts started becoming a distant memory the minute restaurants around the country set up the patio tables and opened the rooftop decks for the season. Restaurants with outdoor dining spaces in many markets have gone from being a nice perk to a must-have, especially in places where the out-of-doors is a major draw.

“In Colorado, specifically in Denver, we get 300 days of sunshine a year,” said Denver-based restaurant consultant John Imbergamo. “Outdoor patios are a way of life with consumers across the dining spectrum from fast casual to fine dining.”

In addition to fine weather, scenery can also be a big reason for restaurants to add outdoor seating, as evidenced by’s recent list of Top 10 outdoor dining restaurants, which includes waterfront restaurants Legal Harborside in Boston and Red Fish Grill in Coral Gables, Fla.

But even in areas that don’t boast nearly year-round sunshine or waves crashing below, seasonal outdoor dining can be a draw.

It’s the first summer for The Rail in North Olmstead, Ohio, which opened last December and set up the 30-seat patio as soon as the spring sun warmed things up enough. “As soon as the weather got warm and we started getting requests to sit outside, we opened up the patio,” said General Manager Chad Caplinger.

Having outdoor seating during the fine days of spring and summer can be a deciding factor when customers are choosing a restaurant, and as a draw, patios can even prove too popular sometimes.

“There are consumers who only want to eat on the patio in the summer,” Imbergamo said. “The bigger issue is capacity.  A small restaurant like Bistro Vendome only has about 60 seats in the winter, expanding to 100 seats on the days we can use the patio. Patios are especially preferred for brunch.”

Adding capacity doesn’t require significantly more staff to handle, Caplinger said, and outdoor diners don’t tend to linger longer or order more than their counterparts inside. It’s the same for Imbergamo’s clients — with one exception.

“A marathon, a parade, a festival happening on the street in front of the patio will cause diners to camp out,” he said.

For the most part, the returns from outdoor dining areas are worth any extra licensing or permitting hoops operators have to jump through, which can vary greatly from one market to another, Imbergamo said.

“[In Denver], liquor licenses need to be extended,” he said. “You need a revocable permit to operate in the right-of-way. Some jurisdictions have fees associated with patios (like the 16th Street Mall) and they can be significant.”

When objections and arguments over patios crop up there, they’re typically focused on how a restaurant will be able to fit a dining patio between the building and sidewalk, and still leave the required amount of right-of-way access.

Regulatory glitches haven’t been an issue at The Rail, where the patio brings almost nothing but upside, Caplinger said.

“The only real drawback is when we have severe weather and storms, and we have to bring people inside when we’re extremely busy,” he said. Finding space for additional patrons on a busy Saturday night when all the inside tables are full can  be a challenge. “But we figure it out.”

And even in spots that don’t seem to make sense, putting in a patio can be a smart marketing move.

“At Panzano, we have a small patio on a very busy street that is incredibly hot in the summer,” Imbergamo said. “City buses go by spewing smoke. At best, people sit out there and enjoy themselves at dusk. At worst, we have umbrellas doing free advertising for the restaurant.  I haven’t seen a situation where the addition of a patio hasn’t been worth it.”


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