The Great Outdoors

What’s Involved in Adding a Patio or Rooftop Bar in 2010?

While patrons find an outdoor setting invigorating, operators find patio and rooftop space can add an immense amount of value to a venue. The industry saw a sharp rise in outdoor areas a few years ago because of smoking bans, but the trend is still moving upward at a steady pace for 2010. Venues in climates warm and cold are embracing the great outdoors; poolside “daylife” events are the rage in Vegas and Miami, while rooftop or patio bars are hot in unlikely spots such as New York, Chicago and Cleveland. Wonderful technology is available to battle both snow and sun, and with costs of construction at an all-time low, this might be an ideal year to take advantage of an outdoor space and increase profits. Here’s what you should know before you take the leap.

Taming Mother Nature

When considering adding an outdoor component to a venue, the number one concern is typically weather, especially if the venue is located in a four-season environment. But Rudy Miick, founder and president of Boulder, Colo.-based Miick & Associates, says the market is rife with advanced temperature-controlling technology. Miick knows a thing or two about making an outdoor setting work, having been involved with more than 1,000 openings and 40 rooftop debuts in his 30 years of bar operations and consulting, often working closely with architects and design firms on layout.

A vital component in creating a unique outdoor venue is keeping a consistent temperature. When this is achieved, Miick says, the ambiance is unmatchable. “There is a vibe about an outdoor space that creates [a connection], when it’s done well, that’s untouchable indoors,” he says, adding that improved technology in products like heaters and misters makes this possible. “There are really good products out there now. It used to be that heaters, even as recent as seven or eight years ago, were propane tanks. Now there are instant-on/instant-off radiant heaters that can be tucked up into awnings. In Colorado, radiant-heated floors like they have in homes are beginning to show up on bar rooftops. They keep the floors from icing or snow from sticking.”

For Frank Schultz, owner of Tavern Hospitality Group, a patio or rooftop component is a “must” when building a property. He has five Tavern locations in the Denver area, as well as two live music venues. His outdoor success has been a combination of radiant heat, mist systems, portable walls and even good old-fashioned fire pits.

“I’m a true believer that part of our success is the ability to move people outside on nice days,” he explains. “We have fire pits in some of our locations, which add a great design element plus heat. In others, we may have a waterfall feature. We always have something to draw guests out. We use Space-Ray for radiant heat at the moment, but we’ve used infrared, and I like them too. Radiant heat is important. It’s not the most cost efficient, but it is the best. With propane, you end up changing tanks every few days.”

If the space is a patio or deck with an awning or roof above, another element to consider is air flow. Strategically placed fans can ensure heat and cool air circulate properly, and can also add an aesthetic element to the space.

The right outdoor furnishings can also make or break a patio or rooftop. Service is crucial, and you want furnishings to be not only element-proof if you don’t have storage, but also moveable, to create different atmospheres and accommodate swift service. Miick suggests using film and set designers to help create your outdoor space because “they understand budget and deadline while creating an emotive feel,” he says. “You don’t necessarily want to just hire a designer. Without being too corny, a bar is really similar to a stage, and if you create a space that doesn’t pull people outside, then it’s a wasted space.” Another option is to consult flexible furnishing providers and designers who understand that space needs to be fluid to be considered fresh in today’s competitive environment.

To make sure there’s constant flow from the inside to the outside, Tavern Hospitality’s Schultz advises that outdoor space should be versatile to accommodate all conditions and situations. “I want to have the ability to enclose, too. We can then always use the square footage for overflow,” he says. “So, for example, in our uptown location, the patio is enclosed in winter with awnings and sides put on. I never want fixed seating either because I like to be able to move things and make a standing room event possible.”

And, in the off months, make sure your outside space isn’t an eyesore, Miick warns. ”Don’t leave stacked chairs against a stark wrought-iron fence, for instance. This stuff is simple, but people don’t think about it.”

Miick and Schultz agree that whenever possible, a service bar should be placed outside. For one of Miick’s smaller spots, he built a bar that served as a wall between indoors and out. It allowed two bartenders to face inside, with two facing the outside deck in accommodating weather. While lighting, heating, misting and aesthetics are important to the success of an outdoor space, the outside bar is really the star.

Get Out and Stay Out!

A great promotion is one way to show off your outdoor space to a new crowd. At Cleveland’s Velvet Dog, a four-story nightclub open for 12 years and known for its rooftop space, the summer season really kicks off with the Paint the Town Red Memorial Day event. “We bring in a local graffiti artist for the event who sets up huge canvases and paints caricatures of the skyline,” explains general manager Andrew Watts. “We have stilt walkers and fire jugglers, and for the rest of summer, our bottle service cabanas are sold out.”

Success from this event is vital for Velvet Dog’s business, as there are only a few temperate months in Cleveland for guests to enjoy the outdoor space. Save for a New Year’s Eve event, when a tent is erected and faux walls are put in place, Velvet Dog must close its rooftop space in the winter, storing everything from wires to soda lines in the basement.

At Tavern Hospitality Group’s locations, one of which was named one of the top 10 rooftops in America by Playboy, acoustic music Sundays are popular, as is the happy hour patio Daiquiri service. The outdoor spaces provide so much profit, in fact, that Schultz is expanding this year.

“I’m currently involved in construction for a multimillion-dollar update to one of my patios that will increase the capacity from 175 to 650 when it’s finished,” Schultz says. “In those nice summer months, I would guess 65 percent of my business — food, liquor, everything — is from the patio.”

That’s quite a bit of profit from a space right outside your door. NCB