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At Contigo in Austin, Texas, only 16 seats are located inside; 50 seats are outside and 60 seats are located under an outdoor awning.

Eating Outside the Box.

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Restaurants create lush patios and turn dining out into lengthy al fresco respites

By Jessica Lee June 2015

On days when the weather is warm but not too hot, the best place to be in Austin, Texas, is Contigo. Owned by Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart, the restaurant, which boasts fresh, quality bar food, is located almost completely outdoors. Fifty of the restaurant’s seats are located in an uncovered beer garden, 16 seats are located within the restaurant’s walls, and 60 seats are situated under an awning. Seats located under the overhang can be fully enclosed with a tent during the winter.

“We chose to have most of our seating outside because it fits with the concept of our restaurant. We are modeled after Contigo Ranch, and the outdoor [ambiance] goes along with this concept.“ Edgerton says. “There is risk involved with opening any restaurant, but the weather in Austin cooperates with an outdoor concept very well. The pros and cons of having outdoor seating go hand in hand. When the weather is good we are packed. When the weather is bad we are slow.”

Whether it’s for happy hour, a whole meal, a picnic on the patio, or a tasting menu consumed under the stars, guests seek outdoor dining during warm-weather months, begging to be showered in the romantic notions of warm afternoons, crisp evenings, and a nighttime setting punctuated by fireflies.

For operators, this means working with the fluctuations of bad weather, noise pollution, and even city regulations. Those that pull off outdoor seating well do it with aplomb, becoming sought after for something they offer—quite literally—outside of their four walls.

Edgerton notes that because Austin is lucky enough to experience warm weeks during the winter months, the restaurant’s outdoor concept flourishes, as it can offer full capacity seating about 245 days of the year.

Contigo serves between 50 and 350 diners a night depending on the day of the week and the season. On days when the mercury drops below 50 degrees or when it rains, Edgerton has found that he can count on the restaurant making half as many sales as it would on a sunny, warm day—and that’s with no fluctuation in the per-person average on checks.

But weather-related declines in sales do not make Edgerton reconsider the al fresco focus at Contigo.

“Our brand has become associated with outdoor dining and we have benefitted greatly from that,” Edgerton says.

Taking Fine Dining Outdoors

At New Orleans restaurant Broussard’s, fine dining is joined with an idyllic outdoor garden setting. Seventy-five of the high-end Creole restaurant’s 200 seats are located in the building’s historic French-style courtyard, which dates back to 1831.

Because of the relaxed setting, patrons are permitted to dress less formally when dining outside at Broussard’s.

“Outside dining usually comes with the expectation of a more casual and relaxed experience,” Broussard’s general manager Chris Ycaza says. “While we require business-casual attire in the main dining rooms, casual attire is accepted in the bar and courtyard at any time.”

Many of Broussard’s diners specifically request to dine al fresco for the romantic setting and ambiance. The courtyard is overflowing with plants such as baby monkey grass, Japanese ewe, wisteria, and palm trees. The restaurant hires a professional landscaping service to keep the space kempt and clean.

But Ycaza notes that outdoor diners typically spend less money than those dining indoors because they usually refrain from ordering whole bottles of wine or taking part in the restaurant’s $55 tasting menu option. Instead, al fresco diners tend to take advantage of the restaurant’s happy hour promotions, which include deals such as $4 glasses of wine and well drinks.

“I would say people drink as much or more outside—especially during happy hour,” Ycaza says. “Spending less during happy hour, for example, does not mean buying less; it means taking advantage of the specials we offer.”

Ycaza is quick to add that there are always exceptions. “I had a couple enjoy our degustation next to another couple that ordered a rare $100 bottle of Cotes de Provence Blanc in the courtyard a few nights ago.”

Those who rent the garden for private events such as weddings and work-related parties are willing to pay a premium for the space. The cost depends upon food and beverage minimums, the season, competitive industry rates, and any à la carte business that must be forgone to close off the space.

“It is a commodity that people will pay for,” Ycaza says.

A few blocks from Broussard’s is Tableau, a French Creole restaurant that boasts 100 seats outside on its balcony and in its courtyard.

Wesley Noble Janssen, the marketing manager for restaurant group Dickie Brennan & Company, which owns Tableau, believes that the restaurant’s prime location and picturesque al fresco setting is what keeps diners coming back.

“When people envision New Orleans, they see jazz bands, delicious food, and balconies and courtyards. A balcony in the French Quarter is a high commodity, and it’s a unique experience, especially one overlooking Jackson Square,” Janssen says. “Once a guest has dined while seated on the balcony or even just sipped on a cocktail while listening to the jazz bands playing in the square below and watching a beautiful sunset, they’re hooked. It doesn’t get much more special than that.”

Janssen has found that sales are 30 percent higher on beautiful days because guests want to sit outside and enjoy the surroundings that New Orleans has to offer. The restaurant has a popular happy hour promotion everyday during off hours, which directly results in a spike of food and beverage sales. Approximately 70 percent of Tableau’s happy hour diners opt to sit outside. The outdoor space is typically open 300 days of the year, with spring and fall being the most popular seasons due to the milder temperatures. “Because of our location on Jackson Square, beautiful days are more successful because people are out enjoying the park at the square,” Janssen says.

Year-Round Al Fresco Dining

At Wild Wing Cafe, David Clark, the restaurant’s vice president of development, has found that guests tend to spend more money when dining outside since they feel less rushed. Because of the more relaxed environment, they spend more time dining and drinking, and thus spending more money.

The regional wing chain, which is known for its live music and has locations scattered throughout the South, allocates 10–20 percent of most of its restaurants to patio dining. As a means to bring the outdoors in without sacrificing operational days, Wild Wing Cafe incorporates a series of garage doors, which open directly to the indoor/outdoor bar.

“A well-designed patio can adapt to changing weather conditions by closing retractable panels, using radiant heaters, and so forth. An owner must decide on the intended use of the patio and carry that into the initial design phase in order to get the most from the space,” Wild Wing Cafe’s director of construction and facilities Daren Knight says.

In 2013, Wild Wing Cafe developed a new prototype for its forthcoming restaurants that emphasizes outdoor space, because, as Clark notes, offering outdoor dining is an important factor in keeping up with the competition.

“Everyone wants to dine outside, so you better offer it or you will lose out to your neighbor that does,” Clark says. “If potential guests are making a decision where to eat lunch based on wanting to dine outside, why eliminate your restaurant from their options?”

During the planning phase of developing a Wild Wing Cafe, a number of logistical matters are taken into consideration regarding the patio area. For instance, to better maintain service levels in the outdoor dining area, the restaurant is designed with wait stations located nearby and bars are always close or connected to the patios.

In addition to the physical layout of the space, the design takes into consideration the natural impacts of an outdoor setting—such as the fact that food naturally attracts pests.

“You can bet when you’re outside eating there will be flying insects trying to join your meal,” Knight says. “However, there are actually plants that can be used on patios that will repel nuisance insects. For instance, marigolds, basil, and wormwood naturally repel flies and other insects and will grow well in planters or flower beds. These plants will decrease your insect population without having the negative effects on guests that a bug zapper or fly strips would. Food for thought, not for the insects.”

Keeping it Consistent

One of the biggest challenges of developing a patio dining area is keeping the design consistent with the indoor space. At Starbelly in San Francisco, reclaimed wood elements are used in both the dining room and the patio dining area to create an atmosphere that is fluid and allows diners to enjoy a similar experience throughout the restaurant.

And to add further value to the outdoor space, Starbelly has planted a lush garden full of succulents and other vibrant plants. The staff works together to maintain the greenery.

“It’s a group effort. Everyone—from the dishwashers to the restaurant manager to our chef—works together to care for the plants,” Chef/partner Adam Timney says. “We also plant seasonally, in keeping with our concept of serving local comfort foods.”

Starbelly’s menu is designed to complement the outdoor environment and communal dining experience. Items that can be passed around the table, such as pizza, small plates, and charcuterie platters, grace the menu. The restaurant prides itself on being a part of the neighborhood and regularly hosts patio picnics, wedding receptions, and an annual crab feast.

Chef Timney has also found that the picturesque garden setting contributes to drink choices. Customers dining on the patio typically order cocktails with a lighter alcohol content such as Pimm’s Cups, Sangria, and Micheladas—a popular choice combining beer, lemon, salt, and spice.

On days when the forecast calls for rain, a retractable canvas awning is put into place so the 50-seat patio can be used all year. The awning was custom made for Starbelly and retracts on the sides to envelop the space.

“Fortunately, we can fully enclose our patio if the weather requires it. We also use outdoor heaters year-round,” Chef Timney says. “We find ourselves following the weather closely for the good days, as we know that means a full patio.”

Dining Under the Brooklyn Bridge

At Gran Eléctrica in Brooklyn, New York, co-owner Emelie Kihlstrom also keeps a careful watch on the weather forecast, since a day of bad weather means sales are cut in half. The Mexican restaurant’s garden seats 60 diners and features no covering or awning of any sort. When it rains, the garden dining area must be closed.

“If the weather forecast shows a 70 percent chance that it will start raining, we cut our staff for the night,” Kihlstrom says. “The garden is a big draw in the summertime, so it’s challenging because our business depends on those sunny, dry days.”

Gran Eléctrica is situated close to the Brooklyn Bridge, a site that many tourists frequent. Because of the area’s increased foot traffic in the summer, the restaurant experiences very seasonal spikes. During warmer months, business also increases because visitors and local residents alike seek garden dining, especially in New York City, where the opportunity to eat outside is usually limited to sidewalk seating.

“We were very lucky to find this space,” Kihlstrom says. “It’s completely removed from the rest of the craziness in busy Brooklyn. It’s an oasis.”

The outdoor space opens a week before Cinco de Mayo and is usually closed near the end of September, although it will open for select weekends in October if the weather remains mild. For aesthetic reasons and because temperatures usually remain mild across New York summers, the garden area does not include fans or cooling devices. An exception is occasionally made during wet summers when fans are used to deter pesky mosquitos.

The garden features a large brick wall that is overflowing with ivy. Durable river birch trees and evergreen boxwood shrubs, which require little maintenance, occupy much of the space. Kihlstrom and her partner Tamer Hamawi have taken it upon themselves to garden whenever the plants need a bit of upkeep. “I would not say that either of us has the greenest of thumbs,” Kihlstrom says. “The only thing we do plant in the summer are herbs like cilantro, as we can use those in our cooking.”