It only takes a few rays of sun and people make a mad dash to their local pub. Having a comfortable outside area can be a big draw, but gone are the days when a few picnic benches and an umbrella or two make the grade.
You only have to watch the raft of TV renovation shows to see consumers are becoming more demanding, even within their own gardens. And if their own garden is nicer than the local pub they may take the decision to stay at home. So it is crucial to get alfresco offer right.
West Country brewer Wadworth says it is important to recognise that pubs are competing with peoples’ homes, especially with the increase in home entertainment systems, smart TVs, Sky and BT sports channels as well as garden wood burners and outside furniture.
Investing in gardens
“People are investing in their gardens so they become an extension of the home with sofas, fire pits, lighting and summer houses,” says Wadworth retail development manager Denise Sheridan.
“This is what pubs have to compete with and it’s no longer sufficient to put out a few tables and chairs. Investment in quality outside areas is not only a necessity, it is a vital route to more sales, with increased covers in sophisticated heated and lit outside spaces.”
The pub company and brewer now approaches many of its investments focusing on the outside as well as the inside areas. It is this strategy that saw the Crown in Devizes, Wiltshire, refurbished at a total cost of £220,000. It utilised a redundant barn and side area of the pub to increase the trading area by 50% creating an additional 48 covers, all heated and undercover with soft furnishings and lights.
Meanwhile, Ed Martin, co-founder at the 13-strong ETM Group, says there are ways to improve outdoor space without committing to a permanent structure.
“At Ealing Park Tavern, we have recently revamped our walled pub garden to feature six cabanas; each with its own heater for the cooler evenings, as well as power points and individual speakers for customers to plug in and play their own music,” he says.
“Other added touches such as cushions and blankets in each of the cabanas work really well to ensure customers are comfortable, while a kids’ corner with plenty of bean bags and giant games keeps the young ones happy.”
He says it is important to focus on who the clients are in the immediate location. The Ealing Park Tavern is in an area with a high number of families so it has installed activities such as a children’s dartboard, hoopla, giant Jenga and Connect 4, to keep the kids entertained.
“We also have an area for live music and ping pong tables, which helps create a welcoming atmosphere, perfect for family-friendly lounging. An outdoor cooking station, including a barbecue and pizza oven, is also installed and available for events and parties,” he says.
Offering something for customers in all weathers is something that Mitch Tillman, managing director of five-strong First Restaurant Group, which boasts London sites including the Waterway in Maida Vale and the Grafton Arms Pub & Rooms in Fitzrovia, has focused on.
“For several years now, we have been using a ‘sail-style’ canopy which is very effective to cover a whole terrace or garden. It can be opened and closed by a winch winding system which winds the sail up into a tight rope effect across the space, but when unwound becomes a complete rain or sun cover,” he says.
For colder evenings its Waterway pub uses large gas mushroom heaters, offers cosy blankets and has two flame fireplace heaters to make sure the area remains comfortable for the customer. While the UK weather is rarely too hot, the terraces at the Waterway boast a unique offer – a water misting system which sprinkles a fine spray onto customers to keep them cool.
It is not just gardens that can get the alfresco treatment, roof gardens can be utilised to make a comfortable trading space for customers. First Restaurant Group recently opened the roof terrace at the Grafton Arms, which involved rebuilding wooden benches with bespoke cushions, bamboo fencing, heating, lighting and even wall artwork.
“This is already a success with several private-hire bookings on the terrace and a huge demand for tables on the terrace both for lunch and dinner,” he says.
Offering something different and getting those alfresco areas right for the customer is crucial to maintain trade and keep them coming back. Becky Airey, brand manager at the 16-strong Revere Pub Company, argues that keeping on top of trends is essential.
“Some customers will even change their allegiance to another pub if it offers them a more attractive alfresco experience,” she says.
“We are always looking to stay up-to-date with trends across our boutique sites, whether that be providing bean bags, heated shipping containers or kid-friendly spaces and activities to ensure it caters for the whole family.”
While pub groups have been making significant investments, individual licensees have also been upgrading outside areas.
Former BII licensees of the year Ashley and Kelly McCarthy at Ye Old Sun Inn, in Colton, North Yorkshire, invested £25,000 in their outside garden area, which opened a year ago.
The aim of the development was to broaden its offer to attract more everyday diners. The development included artificial grass, new garden furniture and a 15ft x 20ft cabin at the end of the garden that includes a bar and pizza oven.
Ashley McCarthy says the pub has seen a “massive” increase in turnover as it has encouraged people to stay longer on site. “The shed is big enough to house about 40 people and that has been really popular for groups, even in the winter and the bad weather,” he says.
“Sunday is a prime example. Customers will come in and have Sunday lunch and then move out to the garden and chill, order another bottle of wine and a beer. On some occasions they will order a pizza to take home or just have a pizza to share while they are drinking.”
Taking and fulfilling orders in garden areas can be a challenge for staff, especially at busy trading times.
Mitch Tillman, managing director, First Restaurant Group, says the company has tried using Wi-Fi EPoS but found it did not work.
“Staff either forgot to charge them, dropped them or they were too small or hard to see in the sunshine. It just never really worked for us so we went back to good old fixed EPoS stations, usually on a mobile station that we take in and out each night and have outside in the garden or terrace during service.”
Meanwhile, co-founder at ETM Group Ed Martin says the company prefers a more personal approach.
“As a local pub, we prefer to encourage our servers to engage in more conversation with visitors and create a rapport as opposed to investing in lots of high-tech gadgets. However, we have added outdoor till points for the sake of efficiency.”
Impact on trading
Extending the outside area of the Red Lion in Stockton Heath, Warrington, Cheshire, a Thwaites tenancy, has had a similar impact on its trading. A £200,000 development completed 12 months ago, including the renovation of a barn as well the alfresco areas outside, has seen the pub double its trade. New slate flooring was put down, a pizza oven introduced and a new pergola area put in on the walkway to the pub.
“Under the pergola we have a seating area which is no smoking,” says Ceris Shadwell who manages the pub.
“We did a lot of work on the seating, such as rattan chairs, and we have put small square tables under the pergola area so groups can put them together.” Heaters were also introduced for the winter months, fairy lights for atmosphere and an old beer barrel full of fresh water for its dog visitors.
While making the garden areas comfortable is important, it also provides the opportunity to do something different. PR Brendan Geoghegan explains that Mad in London – operator of the Ei Pub Partnership leasehold, the Culpeper, in London’s Aldgate – has transformed the roof terrace at the outlet to a “pickle-centric experience” called Piculpeper.
The pub grows medicinal and edible herbs, vegetables and flowers on its rooftop which are used in its food and cocktails. The transformation has seen the roof terrace fronted by an 8ft gherkin installation and surrounded by different varieties of cucumbers, which will be used across its cocktails, dishes and pickled for the winter months.
It uses the space to host rooftop astronomy nights, and classes where guests learn how to preserve and pickle.
Whatever quirky plans a pub decides on for its alfresco area, ensuring the customer is catered for is key. Suppliers of equipment, fixtures and fittings say that there has been a surge in interest from the sector.
James Peel, director at SBI, says there is a trend in the market more for fixed roof verandas either in glass or polycarbonate. “A lot of people do want an experience when they go out,” he says.
“The beauty is that when people are under a patio awning it can still be cold and wet outside but stick a couple of heaters underneath and a bit of lighting and you have created a useable area with a nice atmosphere.”
Outdoor heating specialists Ipswich-based Space-Ray offer one solution to the vagaries of the British climate with radiant heating. Designed to withstand all weathers, radiant heat warms up customers in the same way as the sun. Their electric range is designed to fit the aesthetics of any space.
David Dean, group marketing manager of NBB Recycled Furniture, advises licensees to ensure their style reflects the tone of the pub but is robust enough to withstand heavy use.
Its bestseller is the standard picnic table, which is manufactured totally out of 100% recycled plastic. “Meaning not only do they look great and help save the planet, but will also save the publican money in the long run,” he says.
Peter Bennett, marketing manager at LeisureBench, agrees that publicans need to buy outside furniture that is fit for purpose. “A well-maintained, clean outdoor space will attract families with children and customers looking
to sit and have a drink/meal in the sunshine,” he says.
And while attracting that all-important family business, don’t forget that keeping the kids entertained is crucial.
John Slater, director at playground equipment supplier Homefront, says: “If you have a family coming, the kids are going to get bored and they probably won’t stay as long. But if they are entertained they may stay for another drink or lunch instead.”
Whatever the weather, eating and drinking alfresco is popular and customers want that wow factor. Making the most of any available outside area can be a sound investment for pubs.