Canadians are known for their love of the great outdoors, so it’s no surprise that during the summer months, they flock to sidewalk and rooftop patios for drinks, meals or coffee. Many places in Canada have a relatively short warm season, and customers like to make the most of it: every spring, newspapers publish lists of the city’s best patios, and restaurant windows sport banners announcing “patio now open.”
Sidewalk patios provide much of Canada’s outdoor dining space, but back gardens and decks are also popular options. In Ottawa, some of the restaurants housed in older buildings near the By Ward Market have access to a hidden cobblestone courtyard that, on a warm evening, is like entering another world. While Yorkville’s sidewalk cafes provide some prime people-watching in Toronto, one of Yorkville’s rooftops has long been one of the city’s favourite patios, just two flights up from the bustling street scene. In Vancouver, customers can enjoy spectacular views from the decks and boardwalk patios of Granville Island.
For foodservice operators, patios have the obvious plus of expanding your floor space. They also provide an opportunity to make the most of a great view or a location that boasts either the excitement of urban hum, or an escape from it. And filling those extra seats shouldn’t be a problem: a good patio can bring in more customers.
“It’s a huge draw,” says SIR Corp.’s Christine Dais of the company’s patio locations in downtown Toronto. SIR Corp.’s properties include some of the biggest patios in the area, including Brasserie Frisco and Alice Fazooli’s downtown locations, and a new Jack Astor’s on Front Street.
“We definitely see a huge increase in business with our patios,” she says. “It’s the summer in Toronto: everyone loves sitting outside and people watching.”
Brasserie Frisco began using its outdoor space early this year, because the mild weather in mid-April prompted customers to ask for seating on the sunny patio. The space was ready for use because it had been planned well in advance. Throwing some tables and chairs onto the sidewalk in front of your window won’t make a successful patio. Think about service, ambience and customer comfort when putting together an outdoor seating area.
Most sidewalk space is governed by municipalities, so rules regarding times of operation, noise, pedestrian and wheelchair access, smoking and serving alcohol vary from town to town. Application processes, fees and deadlines will also differ from place to place.
You’ll need to make sure your guests can get the same great service outside as they get inside. Dais says a priority for SIR Corp. outdoor spaces is to ensure there are service stations on the patios. A well-equipped patio means servers have quick access to water and drink refills, and basics are easily accessible without the outdoor servers having to walk through the restaurant. It also means guests are not left waiting longer than usual.
Guests should also be comfortable. Wanting a table outside doesn’t mean wanting to sit in the blazing sun. Umbrellas and retractable canopies provide shade and shelter from rain. Patio heaters can extend the outdoor season.
Alice Fazooli’s on Adelaide Street in Toronto has a special misting system to keep guests comfortable on the garden patio at the back of the restaurant. A fine mist is released to keep the atmosphere dewy and cool.
“It’s quite nice, actually. It’s very unassuming, you don’t feel like there’s water, it’s just refreshing,” Dais says of the misting system. “I really haven’t seen any other restaurants with that.”
SIR Corp. also pays close attention to landscaping and design for its patios, hiring specialists to make sure that the flowers and landscaping on their patios don’t look those at all the other restaurants in the area.
“We go to great lengths to make sure of that,” Dais says. The process begins about three months in advance, with drawings and samples and finally the finished product.
Looking after a few details can put the finishing touches on the ambience. Dais says items like patio uniforms for staff can be important, and music is a vital part of patio ambience.
Once you’ve got a comfortable, inviting space set up, the warm weather should do the rest. Many Canadians like to squeeze all they can out of the warm season, and patios often remain busy long past Labour Day.