The Great Outdoors

Posted on Back of House Aug 2008 - by Tandoori Magazine
The Great Outdoors

Not usually associated with being enjoyed alfresco, could Indian food be about to experience a trip into the garden? Antony Lopez opens the doors, steps outside for Tandoori.

Imagine the aroma of smoky kebabs, flavoursome char grills, juicy salads and ice cold beer and cocktails wafting through the air of your garden area. But the sad fact is that not many Indian restaurants have outside dinning facilities.

Some have a handful of tables and chairs on the pavement outside, but very few have a dedicated area that is part of the premises such as a garden for those perfect afternoon or evening meals.

Most restaurants have a back yard or garden of some sorts. Often this is just used as a storage area with the bins, used cans of cooking oil and broken furniture lying around. This area could be utilised for dining, obviously not every space could be of use, but it is amazing what is possible in even the smallest area.

What exactly could such an outside area mean to a restaurant?

According to Josh Arora, proprietor of Mantra in Hounslow, it can make good economic sense, “If you have got the space you can generate at least 30% extra sales, while still using the same kitchen and the same staff.”

Placing tables on the pavement in front of the restaurant involves cutting through a lot of red tape. Plans have to be submitted to the Highways Management Department of the local council. A planning officer is then sent out to inspect the premises. There is then a 28-day consultation process, during which local councillors, the police, Fire Brigade and the council planning department are given the opportunity to make objections. Only then do the proposals go before the licensing committee, for final approval.

If the new dinning area is to be within the existing premises then no planning permission is required, it is already covered by your existing licence. However it is still advisable to speak to the local council, to inform them of your plans. At long as there are no structural changes or permanent structures then the procedure is relatively straightforward. Regulations vary from council to council, planning permission may be required if the plans involve putting down wooden decking.

Obviously if the table and chairs are open to the elements, customers will only be willing to dine outside for part of the year, the weather being what it is in this country. This dining period can be extended by the introduction of patio heaters; the extra revenue they can generate far outweighs the initial investment and running costs.

Outdoor heaters are of little use in the dead of winter. To be able to make use of the outdoor dining area all year round, a good quality awning or even a marquee would be needed. However it is at this point that planning permission may be required.

Permission may be needed from the local council if the covering or awning is more of a permanent structure. This planning process takes time and costs money. The potential benefit of being able to dine all year round, and the extra revenue this generates, needs to be weighed up against the initial installation costs.

In the year or so since the smoking ban came into effect, many restaurants have witnessed a drop in takings, while others have benefited. It only takes one smoker to influence the decision of a whole group. A diner may choose a particular restaurant if they know they can smoke at the table, especially during the summer months.

Some diners are unwilling to eat their food outside the restaurant, on tables in the street, be it the noise, pedestrians or pollution that deters them. The option of being able to sit down to eat in a secluded area away from the noise of the road is very appealing to many.

Some restaurants initially see the outdoor area as a supplement to the main dining area inside.

“We initially thought it would just simply act as an overflow, because we had a lot of customers we were turning away” says Arora. “What has happened is that people really love sitting outside. People are coming back specifically because we have got the outside area. Within a few weeks I realised that it was a bigger hit than the restaurant itself.”

If the dining area is covered on all sides, as well as the roof it is then classed as an enclosed space, and therefore subject to smoking restrictions. This could mean losing the customers that were originally coming to the restaurant knowing they could smoke at the table.

Manoj Vasaikar, Chef and patron of Indian Zing, Hammersmith and Indian Zest, Sunbury-on-Thames warns that if the outside area is too successful then this could detract from the main dining area inside. “If it becomes a case of people wanting to sit outside to eat on a hot summer’s day, then I think it doesn’t reflect too well on the on the restaurant’s main dining area inside because it happens to be empty.”

Some Indian restaurants develop an outdoor area with a view to maybe setting up a barbeque area and cooking kebabs and other tandoori items in front of the diners. This can look and smell good but a few things should first be taken into consideration. Having a barbeque necessitates employing at least one extra member of staff; the main kitchen still needs to be open for the usual dishes. If there are no customers outside it could mean staff are standing around doing nothing.

“If you have a barbecue, it isn’t just a case of having the right equipment, but labour costs also have to be taken into account. True, it does have theatricality to it and fun element the whole family can enjoy, particularly on a Sunday afternoon, but the fact is that it just isn’t practical.” says Vasaikar.

If the barbeque is inside a marquee or an enclosed area then adequate ventilation needs to be provided. All the usual food preparation and hygiene rules need to be adhered to. Food cannot be kept outside for too long, it needs to be kept in a fridge.

Noise is another consideration; the council would very quickly put a stop to outside dining if complaints are received from neighbours. The usual policy is for the customers to be inside by 11pm. Only background music can be played, again to avoid any complaints.

Consideration has to be given to the furniture used outside. If the area is open to the elements then someone will have to bring the tables and chairs inside the building every night. So thought has to be given to who will be moving them, and how heavy they are.

For a restaurateur, developing an outside dinning area can prove a solid financial investment from little initial outlay. The area can act as an overflow when the main indoor dinning area gets full, but can also end up becoming a pulling factor in its own right.

Risk can come into play when further investment is made on infrastructure such as marquees, awnings and barbeque equipment. The perceived wisdom seems to be, start basic, during the summer, and see how things turn out.

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