By Steve Starr, principal, starrdesign

In Part One of this series we tasked restaurant operators to answer several questions about their outdoor dining space. This was done to get operators thinking about and thinking through the best ways to capitalize on these spaces for maximum ROI. For the purpose of this article, we will now make some design recommendations intended to make outdoor dining spaces friendlier and more inviting to guests.

For those that are looking for a happy medium, we’ve found a few things to be helpful in mitigating weather extremes and getting a few more useful weeks out of your outdoor dining spaces, especially as cooler temperatures threaten to limit outdoor dining capacity.

    1. Pay attention to the direction your patio faces. Understanding passive solar design is critical. Most people know that in the northern hemisphere the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But what they don’t quite grasp is that it’s always in the south. It rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest. In the summer, it’s higher in what’s referred to as the ‘sky vault’ and in winter it’s lower in the sky vault. So, roof overhangs, awnings, and other horizontal projections covering an outdoor dining space can be very effective if it’s facing south because it provides shade in the hot summer and a little bit more sun in the cooler winter. If you’re on the south side of the building, then shading and / or complete covering is very helpful at blocking the direct sunlight and keeping the outdoor area cooler. If your patio is on the north side of the building, a roof or shade covering is not required and might even lead to a dank feeling because the patio is always in the building’s shadow. Although without the covering, guests are exposed to sudden rain showers. Outdoor dining spaces on the east or west sides of the building are a little bit harder to keep in the shade, with a southwest facing patio being the hardest shade. Vertical fin walls made from exterior fabric, landscape screens or feature elements help block the direct sun from the sides of an east or west facing dining area.
    2. Large and well designed, low velocity, high air volume fans set above the level of your outdoor lighting can provide a gentle breeze in hotter weather creating a relative cooling effect. When run in the opposite direction, they effectively move hotter air down to the level of the guests. The key is not just standard ceiling fans, but ones that turn slowly, but move a great deal of air. They can also help relieve the perceived dampness by continuously moving the air through the space, facilitating evaporation. Patio heaters are also effective if used in conjunction with these low velocity fans by warming up a space that might be a little too cool in autumn evenings. We’ve found that several smaller, lower wattage infrared electric heaters work better than fewer, larger gas heaters, but they are a little more expensive.
    3. Planters, inviting foliage/landscaping are a key element that address three important factors. First is that people associate nature with health; adding planted pots, trees, green screens, or landscape beds help to convey a safe & healthful environment. Secondly, larger pots, trees or planter boxes help to add anchoring elements to organize seating areas and act as natural dividers. The third, and possibly most important factor, is that landscape and plantings help to create a cooler environment. Solid concrete, asphalt, wood, or other hard paving surfaces retain heat in the summer and create a “heat island effect,” where the air temperature outside might be 90 degrees and the hard patio surface emanates an additional 3-10 degrees from the ground, raising the temperature for guests. The plants and natural areas do not retain heat and even help to lower the temperature slightly through the photosynthesis process.
    4. Seasonal or roll-down wall panels are two other elements that can be used to temper weather conditions for a covered outdoor dining patio. We recommend fairly thick 20 mil PVC & 18 oz. Ripstop vinyl coated polyester roll-down walls panels run on magnetic tracks to keep the fabric taught and looking clean. In most climates, they provide a few additional weeks of use during the late autumn / early winter months and / or provide some protection from bad rainstorms.

The Goldilocks Principal – how much is just right?

Although we have identified several elements that contribute to a great outdoor dining experience, and may help to increase ROI, success requires careful choreography. Knowing which, how much, and where to use the various elements is key in designing a great outdoor eating environment. Just like the old fairy tale Goldilocks & the Three Bears, Goldilocks had to try different bowls of porridge and different beds before she found the ones that were just right. That’s why some of the greatest outdoor dining environments are created over time. Restauranteurs try a variety of elements to test what’s just right. If you want to move the process along a little faster, we suggest working with a restaurant design professional and studying the outdoor dining environment with the same level of thought and intention you would your kitchen or dining room. We’ve found that visiting a number of inspirational environments with your designer and developing images studies helps evaluate which options and elements will be successful. Creating a 3-d model and renderings of the outdoor dining environment is another way to look at several options before having to make a final decision and pay for construction. The last thing we’ve found useful for our clients is to mock-up the area in a warehouse or even a parking lot to see if the spacing, elements, and solar orientation are what you want it to be. It’s a life-size, inexpensive way to refine your idea so is the final product is one step closer to being ‘just right.’

By incorporating one or even a few of these design elements, restaurant operators can keep their patios and outdoor dining spaces open longer, thus maximizing ROI even through the cooler months. No one knows what the future holds, but by having a plan we can at least mitigate some of the financial challenges brought about by the current pandemic.