One of the best parts of the summer is the boom in patio dining. Whether it’s a few tables on the sidewalk or a dedicated area adjacent to the restaurant, outdoor-dining terraces are packed with diners when it gets warm. “People have a natural pull to the outdoors, to dine al fresco,” says Grant Smillie, co-founder and principal of Botanical Hospitality, parent of the recently opened E.P. & L.P. in Los Angeles, which features a 5,500-square-foot rooftop deck (notably larger than the 3,400-square-foot restaurant down below).
But there’s one very large, obvious challenge when operating outdoors: the elements. Since opening in early May, Expat—a new outdoor-only spot in Chicago from Element Collective (which also owns hotspots such as Nellcote, Kinmont and Leghorn Chicken)—has been a bit screwed. “On days when it’s warm out, the response to it has been great—especially anytime after work hours,” says partner Chris Dexter. “But the weather certainly hasn’t been cooperating.” And that’s an understatement. This summer has been exceptionally cold and rainy in Chicago; the number of patio days can likely be counted on two hands.
So we asked both Smillie and Dexter what they do when bad weather strikes.
Dexter: “We’ve been able to strongly position our social media accounts. We post frequent updates on whether we’re open, which encourages people to pay attention to our social media presence and has helped drive those channels.”
Smillie: “When there is guaranteed rain on the radar, we staff back. You hit social media and you preempt the expectation, and then if it clears and a big crowd turns up, well, you deal with it and it’s a good problem to have.”
The common thread—social media. If it’s pouring outside, outdoor spaces obviously aren’t open. But what happens when it’s just misting or the weather is touch-and-go? Or when the forecast predicts rain sometime in the next few hours? No longer do diners have to guess whether or not they can sit outside.
Heck, they don’t even have to call. Social media is outdoor dining’s latest solution. Chicagoans can follow Expat’s #AlfrescoOnly hashtag for a by-the-daypart update with posts such as “We’re obviously going to be closed for lunch, but keep your fingers crossed that we can do this tonight.” or “Happy Sunny Saturday! We’re opening HARD today. See you at noon.”
While it’s obviously a detriment to business to have usable space closed down for the night due to weather, at least operators have a way to avoid disappointing some diners. After all, opening an outdoor space as an operator, you know the risk that every day won’t be warm and sunny. But you can manage expectations and keep guests in-the-know … and happy.