Insider Advice on Outdoor Spaces

Open-air spaces are now all the rage from coast to coast, and al fresco sipping, dancing and noshing undoubtedly will remain a craze in 2012. Bar, club and restaurant operators quickly are learning the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of taking the party outside.

Like any other element of your venue, outdoor spaces require planning to ensure that form and function are in sync to deliver the best guest experience possible. An added challenge is the need to plan for the unexpected — sudden shifts in weather that can turn a patio or rooftop Eden into a nightmare if contingency plans and systems aren’t in place. For example, many operators waking up to that first beautiful, sunny day of the season, complete with moderate temperatures, might count their blessings only to curse themselves later for not adequately preparing for the crowds that throng to the patios, eager to sip in the sunshine or dance under the stars.

Hotel Chantelle

The patio at the Hotel Chantelle Restaurant, Bar & Lounge in New York City.

“I see places all the time with outdoor areas that look great, but don’t function well at all,” laments Nightclub & Bar Contributing Editor Steve Lewis, the veteran nightclub, bar and restaurant designer and operator based in New York City.  “Service is always an afterthought [for bar and club owners developing outdoor areas], which means that the space will never work properly and ultimately will wind up hurting your business.”

To head off such calamity, the three elements that must be built into an outdoor space are ice machines, glassware and backbar inventory. “You have to create a self-sufficient space that’s not necessarily reliant on the rest of the venue for these necessities. If you can, take the time to build out a room or other area to adequately service the volume of guests and allow the service staff to do so without a lot of steps,” Lewis says.

Having a small satellite bar is not enough; a service bar with ample glassware, refrigeration and all the items needed to mix drinks is required. There is one caveat, however. “If building such an area takes away from the outdoor space flow and appeal in terms of the guest, re-think the entire project. If making it serviceable takes away from the guest experience, then don’t go there at all,” he says.

If food is being served on the patio, the kitchen also must be staffed and stocked to accommodate the added volume, says Keegan Moon, director of operations at Bull & Bear in Chicago, Nightclub & Bar's 2012 Sports Bar of the Year. Moon hires and trains staff and develops food items specifically for the summer months; the bar’s mixology team develops summery cocktails for the warm-weather crowds.

“Patios can be very lucrative if executed properly,” he notes.

Bull and Bear

The patio at Chicago's Bull & Bear, Nightclub & Bar's 2012 Sports Bar of the Year.

Outdoor spaces do draw crowds, especially in markets where al fresco socializing is only possible a few months per year. Consider whether to take reservations for outdoor areas. “Among our ‘don’ts’ is taking reservations for tables on the patio,” says Matt McCahill, food and beverage director for Vertigo Sky Lounge at the Dana Hotel in Chicago. “Reservations are a turn-off for guests who spontaneously came out specifically for the patio and find themselves with nowhere to sit. Keeping the patio open for non-reservation guests has been key in helping us appeal to both patrons looking for table service and those who aren’t.”

To get ahead of the elements, Lewis recommends installing heating and cooling systems. Of course, air ducts are not feasible in outdoor spaces, but small heating and cooling units and fans play a crucial role in maintaining comfortable temperatures. Umbrellas also are useful in providing shelter from the beating sun (not to mention keeping birds away from patrons and their food).

Enclosing a portion of the space, but leaving site lines to the outdoor area, provides a comfortable environment with the feel of being out of doors regardless of the climate. Retractable roofs provide the best of both worlds, says Lewis, ensuring that the space generates good times and revenue in any weather.

Vertigo Lounge

The patio at the Vertigo Sky Lounge at the Dana Hotel in Chicago.

Also on Lewis’ hit list of outdoor space dos and don’ts are sound, furnishings and features: 

Sound. Be aware of your surroundings and how sound will bounce around the space and be heard in the neighborhood, he says.

“Noise levels that might be a non-issue inside become a big deal when 300 people are on a rooftop with music playing,” he warns. “Make sure you’re not disturbing neighbors or you will have other problems.” Opt for small speakers strategically spaced that allow you to control the volume, making it enjoyable for patrons while ensuring neighbors are not disturbed. Also, be aware that sound will bounce off of retractable roofs and other outdoor fixtures differently than in indoor spaces.

Furnishings and Features. Crucial, says Lewis, is the ambiance created by the selection of furnishings. How furnishings are grouped to promote good traffic flow and create intimate or large gathering spaces as needed, not to mention the durability of the upholstery and framework, is very important. Features such as water elements or plants can go a long way toward creating the right environment.

“If you make it feel like a park, with benches and thoughtful plants, then it’s far more than a rooftop bar. Plants can create the site lines, lending beauty and organization to the space,” Lewis explains.

Recently, he worked on the design for the rooftop area of the Hotel Chantelle Restaurant, Bar & Lounge in New York City, using silk flowers along with real ivy landscaped over faux ivy. “Quality silk or faux plants and flowers give the illusion year-round of a green, lush environment.”

Finally, think in terms of 12 months. Building a retractable roof system or some sort of enclosure that offers the outdoor feeling allows guests to enjoy the space when it’s raining, snowing or otherwise inhospitable outside. “It also makes first-time guests aware that you have this beautiful outdoor area and prompts to come back and enjoy it,” Lewis says.


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