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The Quarterly Canadian Restaurant Intelligence Report

A Patio for All Season


As we head into the depths of winter, the heady, relaxed nature of patio season feels like it’s receding into the misty depths of memory. But the feeling of warmth and convivial connection doesn’t have to end. Summer may be short, but today, restaurant patios have a longer life than ever before.

Innovative operators may have turned to patios when on-premise dining restrictions were in place, but even as those restrictions eased, the advantages of patios remained. Recognizing the need to shore up local businesses and give communities a safe place to gather, many municipalities have implemented new bylaws. CaféTO, Toronto’s city-wide sidewalk dining initiative, recognizes that patios benefit not only  individual restaurant owners but also everyone in the area. Increased consumer traffic, heightened employment and permit fees combine into a sizable advantage for cities. According to an economic study led by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, CaféTO patios delivered an economic benefit of almost $203 million to the city in 2022.

In 2023, CaféTO helped Toronto restaurants offer another 1,000 outdoor dining spots. Those spots included dozens of patios on private property, upwards of 330 curb lane cafés, and 500 sidewalk cafés which are now allowed to remain in place through the winter. In November 2023, the City made CaféTO zoning bylaws permanent to encourage and enhance the vibrancy of outdoor entertaining. Plans are in place to fast-track approvals in 2024, and also to have curb lane patios ready to open by the Victoria Day weekend. Tracy Macgregor, Restaurants Canada Vice President, Ontario, worked with the City for months, advocating for local operators. She was on hand to welcome the announcement. “With these changes, including year-round and seasonal CaféTO patios that allow for sidewalk and curb lanes, the City of Toronto has enabled more space for outdoor dining, that will in turn generate more revenue and provide more spaces for people to gather, celebrate and enjoy what Toronto restaurants have to offer.”

Whether in a back courtyard, on a side deck, or right out on the sidewalk, patios expand your reach throughout the year. But there are some important things to keep in mind:

  • Comfort: Canada is never in short supply of variable weather, ranging from one extreme to the other. Umbrellas and awnings provide welcome shade and protect customers from precipitation. Heaters can extend the outdoor season, giving people a place to gather even in the colder months.
  • Placemaking: Patios are not just seasonal overflow seating, they are a unique extension of your dining experience. Outdoor spaces provide an opportunity to offer unique menu items that capture the outdoor vibe or bring seasonality and specialized programming more directly into your offering.
  • Marketing: A great patio is a next-level marketing opportunity, giving people a chance to cruise your food and your vibe. Taking the time to plan and maintain an inviting, comfortable and well-lit and attended outdoor space can bring in new customers and offer more options to regulars.
  • Modular Furnishings: Patios require an adjustable approach. Moveable tables, chairs and benches mean you can arrange your layout in multiple ways. Additions like cushions and blankets for chilly days allow for even more options.
  • Lighting: As the nights get longer, a bright, well-lit patio becomes a welcoming beacon, and can also add seasonal cheer and decor, not to mention Instagram-worthy photo opportunities.
  • Music: A patio space can be a performance space, turning dining into a special event and attracting new customers. But even without a concert, music can make an outdoor space more special, blocking out sounds of traffic and creating an oasis for like-minded guests.
  • Accessibility: In patio terms, accessibility applies both within and without, so customers can enjoy easy access and passersby aren’t abruptly displaced.

Patios offer benefits across the spectrum: approachability, community and flexibility. No one understands the need to be flexible better than Jeffrey Van Horne, co-owner of Dear Friend, The Clever Bar Keep, and Drink Atlantic. “We opened Dear Friend July 4th, 2020—only a few months into the pandemic. My business partner and I did the majority of the design and build of our space, so we just focused on finishing the last 10 per cent to get the doors open. This is always the hardest part.”

When the doors finally opened, the partners quickly realized that adhering to provincial COVID restrictions meant they were going to have a difficult time generating the kind of revenue they imagined when they set off on their adventure. “We are dreamers and have always thought about how much we loved outdoor spaces and beer gardens. Maximizing our space and the opportunity we have been given is a guiding principle for us. We are always trying to squeeze every drop from the lemon.”

Their new location had an unexpected bonus they hadn’t previously considered because it wasn’t directly their own: a huge parking lot behind the bar with beautiful sunset views. Seeing those views was all it took. They called their landlord to rent five parking spaces, which was a very reasonable investment. After another call to a contractor friend at Larc Properties, they doubled their capacity in two weeks.

“Each year after that, we invested more to upgrade our patio. Now it’s a deck oasis with a patio bar hut.” The success of their back patio space inspired them to add a patio in the front of the bar on Portland street. “In the summer, it allows us to accommodate more of our awesome patrons and gives our guests two options: inside or outside.”

Patios can help restaurants expand their operations, bring in more customers, and hire more staff. They also help strengthen community ties by blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces. The chic appeal of street café culture is admired the world over. It’s time to make patios a permanent feature on Canadian corners and sidewalks.

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The Quarterly Canadian Restaurant Intelligence Report