How to Design an Outdoor Seating Plan For Your Cafe

Have you been think­ing about adding out­door seat­ing to your cafe? A thought­ful pa­tio de­sign can en­hance your brand and draw in new cus­tomers.

Whether you hire some­one or go about the de­sign your­self, the process is the  same. Be­tween re­search and in­ter­views, I’ve as­sem­bled a sol­id list of tips to pay at­tention to while you’re work­ing on that de­sign.  

Parklet or Pa­tio or Pri­vate Out­door Dining Space 

First and fore­most, know what you’re build­ing be­cause it’ll de­cide how you go about it. New York artist Gor­don Mat­ta-Clark en­vi­sioned the “parklet” con­cept in the ear­ly 1970s with his project “Odd Lots” and a San Fran­cis­co gueril­la art project made it a real­i­ty in 2005. Since then, the city for­mal­ized the pro­gram—turn­ing un­used street space into pub­lic space—and many cities around the world soon fol­lowed. Here in SF, parklets may be des­ig­nat­ed as pub­lic spa­ces, so you need to work with the city. But luck­i­ly, there’s a handy man­u­al for this (oth­er cities have their own, too). 

“We ap­proached the parklet project keep­ing in mind that it is first and fore­most a space for the com­mu­ni­ty—every­one that in­ter­acts with the parklet is com­mu­ni­ty,” says James Wong, man­ag­ing own­er of Bread­bel­ly in San Fran­cis­co. The cafe is not only one of my favorites, but it also has a beau­ti­ful parklet that of­fers a va­ri­ety of seat­ing arrange­ments. Bread­bel­ly is re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing the parklet and its cus­tomers are able to use it dur­ing op­er­at­ing hours. Wong says the de­sign process “al­ways revolved around how the space would be uti­lized dur­ing open cafe hours and off-hours.”  

Pa­tios and oth­er pri­vate out­door seat­ing op­tions usu­al­ly have dif­ferent per­mit require­ments, so it’s high­ly rec­om­mend­ed to do your re­search be­fore you go too deep in the de­sign process. 

Have a Vi­sion 

“The big­gest thing is just know­ing your vi­sion, be­ing as prac­ti­cal as pos­si­ble, then un der­stand­ing who your de­mo­graph­ic is,” ad­vis­es Khanh Trang, founder of Texas-based Greater Goods Cof­fee. Every­one wants to be in a de­sign mag­a­zine, but at the end of the day, you need to de­sign with your cus­tomers in mind. 

Trang worked with Austin ar­chi­tec­ture firm Michael Hsu Of­fice of Ar­chi­tec­ture for Greater Goods’ pa­tio. “It was a vi­sion­ing, where we worked with their ex­ist­ing branding that they had al­ready de­vel­oped as a roast­er and trans­lat­ed that into ar­chi­tec­ture,” says Jay Colom­bo, a part­ner at the firm. He rec­om­mends that a de­sign “am­pli­fy what is in­doors. There shouldn’t be much dif­fer­ence be­tween the in­te­ri­or char­ac­ter and the ex­te­ri­or char­ac­ter.” The over­all cafe should be “one de­sign voice,” and the “nar­ra­tive should car­ry through” to the out­door space.

Hire A De­si­gner

If the thought of hav­ing to de­sign plans, jug­gle con­trac­tors, and se­cure per­mits makes your eyes cross, then you might be bet­ter off work­ing with a de­sign­er. 

“When we tried to do it on our own, it was still as costly and it was a lot more stressful,” says Trang. She advocates for working with a designer “because they’re the ones who help you bid out to your contractors and help you stay on budget. They actually go to bat for you.”

When re­search­ing de­sign part­ners, Colom­bo rec­om­mends in­ter­view­ing a num­ber of peo­ple. He says, “You want to pick some­body that speaks your lan­guage, who can re­al­ly talk about your brand in a thought­ful way.” If they don’t be­lieve in your nar­ra­tive and you can’t be open about what you want, then it’ll be a dif­fi­cult work­ing re­la­tionship. 

Add More Time and Mon­ey to Your Budget 

If you’ve gone about a build out your own be­fore, then you’re prob­a­bly al­ready fa­mil­iar with this tip.  

“Add 10% and a few months for a de­lay,” says Trang about bud­get­ing for mon­ey and time. “You nev­er know the can of worms that are go­ing open up while you’re re mod­el­ing.” The cafe’s lo­ca­tion was orig­i­nal­ly a tow yard, and the struc­tur­al en­gi­neers found that the foun­da­tion wasn’t put in prop­er­ly. “It was just a piece of ce­ment float­ing on earth,” she says. This sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery and per­mit de­lays set the build back quite a bit.

Pick the Right Ma­te­ri­als 

Hand-in-hand with know­ing the weath­er your out­door space needs to be com­pat­i­ble with, the ma­te­ri­als you use are go­ing to make a big dif­fer­ence in both the look and main­te­nance of the space. 

Colom­bo’s firm ap­pre­ci­ates the tac­tile na­ture and unique ag­ing of wood. He says, “Even though it may not last near­ly as long, it’s more sat­is­fy­ing and it feels a lit­tle more com­fort­able than sit­ting on a con­crete back or a steel chair.” 

This be­ing said, con­sid­er how much main­te­nance you want to do. If you want a low-main­te­nance, per­fect-on-day-100-as-on-day-one kind of pa­tio, then con­crete and steel for fur­ni­ture (with shade and cush­ions!) are bet­ter for you. Oth­er­wise, the wood will need re­seal­ing, and you may need to close the cafe for this. 

“It’s a lot of fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tion: up­set­ting the cus­tomers, hav­ing to shut down, hav­ing to pay our staff for lost hours,” says Trang. “And then try­ing to fore­cast and make sure that our con­trac­tors are re­al­ly able to do every­thing in the time­frame they said.” 

Of­fer a Va­ri­ety of Seat­ing Op­tions 

Un­less it’s a sim­ple parklet that only of­fers bench­es, seat­ing op­tions mat­ter. You’ll be host­ing groups of var­i­ous sizes out­side, which means you need some flex­i­bil­i­ty in the seat­ing arrange­ments. 

One of Wong’s fa­vorite as­pects of Bread­bel­ly’s parklet de­sign is “the dif­fer­ent seat­ing ar­eas and small de­tails in the wood­work. In ad­di­tion to mov­able ta­bles and chairs, it in­cor­po­rates “her­ring­bone cor­ners, float­ing bench­es, sta­di­um seat­ing, and planters/plants.” 

Make Space & Add Green­ery 

I’m not writ­ing this tip only be­cause I’m an avid plant par­ent—hav­ing breath­ing room in the pa­tio works on mul­ti­ple lev­els, pan­dem­ic safe­ty in­clud­ed. Re­search also shows that hav­ing green­ery around us re­duces stress, im­proves men­tal health, and boosts cre­ativ­i­ty. 

Colom­bo says that green­ery and veg­e­ta­tion help pro­vide shade, soft­en the space, and with the dab­bling of the light, makes it more dy­nam­ic to be in. You also don’t want to over­crowd the pa­tio. “Don’t try to cram every lit­tle cafe ta­ble or chair into it,” he says. “A re­al­ly good pa­tio has a lot of air move­ment; it just feels open and con­nect ed to the out­doors.” 

Build­ing an out­door din­ing space for your cus­tomers to en­joy can be a daunt­ing process. Hope­ful­ly, these tips have armed you with the knowl­edge you need to cre­ate your own de­sign or work with a de­sign­er. And if you’re still com­plete­ly lost, look to your cur­rent brand­ing or in­te­ri­or space for in­spi­ra­tion.

All photos courtesy of Greater Goods.

Jenn Chen is a San Francisco-based coffee marketer, writer, and photographer. She advises specialty coffee businesses and organizations on digital marketing strategies from voice to social media to how to complement a physical presence with a digital one. When she is not working, you can find her with chips in one hand and holding her dog Zoey in another. You can connect with her at jennchen.com or on social media @thejennchen.