More than mere patios, these al fresco operations can be adapted for both quick and full service.
As the pandemic intermittently limited indoor dining capacity over the past two years, the need for outdoor dining became increasingly apparent.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report, 56 percent of casual-dining operators devoted more resources to developing or expanding outdoor dining areas since the beginning of COVID. Nearly one in four quick-service operators and more than a third of fast-casual operators reported doing the same.
Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that beer gardens have become popular destinations for consumers looking for a sense of normalcy.
“People clearly feel more comfortable sitting outside,” says Nico Freccia, cofounder of 21st Amendment Brewery. “What you see consistently is that people feel way more comfortable about going out if they have an outdoor space where they can hang out.”
In addition to its brewpub in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood, 21st Amendment Brewery also has a taproom with a large beer garden in nearby San Leandro. It’s roughly 5,000 square feet with 16-foot-long picnic tables.
So, what makes a beer garden different from a restaurant with al fresco dining or a neighborhood bar with a patio? Freccia, who launched 21st Amendment Brewery in 2000, says part of the distinction stems from the layout and furnishings.
He adds that a beer garden will generally have long, communal, picnic-style tables, compared to the two- and four-tops found at most al fresco dining areas. Another factor is the overall vibe of the outdoor area and its accessibility, namely whether patrons can enter directly or if they have to go through the restaurant or even a host stand first.
“I think of a beer garden as more of a place where you can just walk in and grab a spot,” he says “It’s more casual, whereas other places that have al fresco dining are more restaurants that also have an outdoor area for dining along with an expectation of you ordering food.”
With a food truck on-site and QR codes on tables for customers to scan and order, 21st Amendment’s beer garden is run like a quick-service restaurant. Freccia says this model allows for faster throughput, especially with recent issues surrounding staffing, but there are some drawbacks.
“We do QR codes, which is sort of a blessing and a curse,” he says. “It’s a blessing because people are able to sit down, scan the code, … and they can order a beer and have it delivered to them within minutes. The real downside is you lack that interaction with a server.”
Other beer gardens have faced similar challenges.
Ashley Hubbard, who owns Tucker Brewing Company in Tucker, Georgia, says the team tried to integrate QR codes into the 8,500-square-foot operation, but it simply didn’t work with the setup. Instead, Hubbard says Tucker Brewing runs the beer garden like a full-service restaurant.
“It is so much better and makes so much more sense for our staff,” she says. “Also, I think the customer feels it’s better, too. Any [team member] walking by their table can stop and help them, … and the customers are happy and feel taken care of.”
Indeed, Hubbard, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, feels that the interaction between server and customer is key, even if most other beer gardens model themselves after quick serves.
“You’re taking care of the customer. We want you to come here and forget about where you’ve been, what kind of week you’ve had,” she adds. “It’s a little more demanding on our staff, but I think at the end of the day it makes people happier.”
With such a large outdoor space, Tucker Brewing is able to seat 288 people at any given time. Hubbard says that capacity has been pushed to the limit over the last several years due to customers being eager to get out of their pandemic bubbles. In terms of sales, June 2020 ended up being the best month in the business’s now five-year history.
Warm months are definitely the busiest, Hubbard says, and having good weather and a communal outdoor seating area is a winning combination at a time when people are looking for well-ventilated venues to unwind.
While most beer gardens share the same atmosphere—relaxed, communal, casual)—the drinks can vary. Some, like Tucker Brewing, focus strictly on beer, while brands, including Dog Haus, extend the offerings to wine and other libations.
“Two years ago, we launched our cocktail program where we partnered with No Kid Hungry and donated a dollar of every cocktail sold to that charity,” says Quasim Riaz, a founding partner at Dog Haus. “Our goal now is to further progress that cocktail program, and one thing that will definitely be on the menu are mocktails.”
Dog Haus has 51 total locations comprising 42 brick-and-mortar fast casuals and nine ghost kitchens. Of the 42 traditional sites, 29 are Dog Haus Biergartens.
Riaz describes the model used at the beer gardens as craft casual, noting it operates like a fast casual where customers order from the bar or POS. He says the craft casual term describes the elevated nature of the food and experience.
“We do turn it up a notch,” he says.
The decision about whether a new Dog Haus location opens with a biergarten is entirely up to the franchisee. Oftentimes, Riaz says, it’s the real estate that dictates that choice.
He adds that the Dog Haus team has more than one reason to gravitate toward sites with outdoor space. The ability to transform patios into beer gardens allowed the brand to offer in-person dining during dine-in restrictions. But another reason is the added value the outdoor space brings in terms of foot traffic and sales. “Even in a normal climate where there isn’t a pandemic, it’s free rent,” Riaz says. “So, we love that.”
Capitalizing on rent-free space is exactly what Freccia and 21st Amendment Brewery are doing in San Leandro. The company’s production facility would be leasing the spot regardless, so the taproom and beer garden are just capitalizing on the existing real estate.
“We're paying rent and utilities on this space, whether we have a taproom or not because it's devoted to production. So, the fact that we have a taproom that's generating revenue makes it a much higher margin business than, say, a standalone restaurant,” Freccia says. “Spaces that have that kind of opportunity are always going to be very attractive.”