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Sky’s the Limit: How Rooftop Restaurants are Raising the Roof on Revenue

There’s nothing quite as dramatic, enjoyable, and aesthetically pleasing as open-air dining. Many restaurants expanded their footprint, pushing horizontal space to the maximum out of necessity in the last few years, but while expanding a patio or dining area can drive revenue and attract new customers, there's just something uniquely spectacular about dining on the top of a roof.

If you're looking to grow your service area, but have maxed out your restaurant’s floor space, think vertically. Whether it’s an after-dinner espresso lounge, a beer garden, or a full-service dining area, when it comes to rooftop dining, the sky’s the limit.

But expanding operations to the roof is a bit more complicated than simply setting out a few tables and chairs, so it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are some of the considerations to keep in mind before you decide to raise the roof.

Assess Physical Challenges

Your building's rooftop just might be an untapped, potentially profitable space, but because it's a physical structure with its own set of limitations, it’s important to assess and address any challenges at the outset before you invest time and money into creating your new space.

  • Bearing the Weight

The roof is generally only strong enough to bear its own weight and the weight of the insulation, ventilation, and other environmental systems that are necessary to operate the structure below. Before setting up additional dining space, you'll need to reinforce the roof to support the additional weight of those fixtures, as well as the weight of guests and staff. It’s critical to seek advice from a professional before taking the next steps.

  • Providing Access

Your guests will need a way to gain access to your rooftop space and sometimes providing that access can be a huge challenge. Depending on the age of the building, most rooftops are accessed by steep and narrow staircases or even ladders, definitely not safe or appealing for customers. You need to also consider the equipment and fixtures that will need to be transported to the roof. Before you set out to build a rooftop dining space, you may need to extend existing stairways and elevators or install new ones to allow for safe, easy-to-climb, and more attractive access for guests and service staff.

Manage Climate

Your rooftop only generates revenue and attracts customers when it's open and comfortable, so carefully planning how and when you’ll use it is critical. Customers have now become accustomed to dining al fresco 365 days of the year, so creating a space that stays open regardless of the season or the weather will provide revenue through all the seasons is less of an option than it used to be – it’s what customers expect.

But just like restaurants pivoted to outdoor dining during those days of restrictions, making your rooftop seasonally adaptive and weather-proof is necessary. Adding climate control systems, enclosed or semi-enclosed permanent structures, temporary bubbles, tents, canopies, and umbrellas, depending on the climate of your location, will protect your space and the people using it from extreme temperatures and nature’s elements, making your rooftop an attractive, revenue-producing option every day of the year.

On the other hand, making these changes is expensive. If your restaurant is in a colder climate, opting for a seasonal space, limited to the mild months of the year, might be a less costly, more practical option.

Weighing the costs against the long-term benefits is essential. While these changes might be pricey, just like outdoor dining became a permanent fixture, your rooftop will also be an integral part of your restaurant’s operation and profit structure. What might be costly in the beginning could send profits through the roof in the end!

Obtain Permissions

Adding a rooftop space won’t happen overnight. In addition to the physical issues, climate considerations, and cost factors to consider, there are also negotiations, regulations, and permissions to acquire before construction can begin.

  • Negotiations

Unless you own your building, you'll need to negotiate with your landlord before you start planning. You’ll need to obtain permission to carry out the construction and may also be required to renegotiate your lease to reflect the additional footprint. A potential untapped profit-maker for the building’s owner, consider working out a cost-sharing agreement to help with the expense of the upgrades. Making an addition to an otherwise unused space that previously never generated rental revenue, might just be an offer they won’t refuse.

  • Permits and Inspections

Whether you rent or own the building, you'll typically need to get one or more permits before construction can begin. Installation of utilities, climate control systems, elevators, specialized kitchen equipment, and restaurant fixtures may require separate permits and inspections before your new space can be opened to the public. Speak to a professional and contact your local authorities to find out what permits you’ll need and follow the regulations at every turn so construction is not delayed or stopped in its tracks.

  • Liquor License

Depending on your jurisdiction, additional or upgraded liquor licenses might be required if you plan to serve alcoholic beverages at your rooftop establishment. There may be special safety regulations involved for serving alcohol on the roof as well. If you don't currently have a liquor license, but plan to add one in conjunction with a rooftop dining space, be aware that this is a time-consuming process in itself, so plan accordingly.

Define Your Demographic and Style

Your outdoor space can do more than just increase the size of your restaurant’s footprint–it can expand your business’s customer base. Depending on the demographic of the customer you’re attempting to attract to your rooftop space, your new space should reflect an image that is attractive to that segment of the population.

If you’re looking to attract a younger crowd, for example, you could opt for a more casual and laid-back vibe. If an older, professional demographic is your target audience, consider creating a more sophisticated ambiance that will appeal to that clientele. Be sure to also consider your existing clientele when deciding on an approach.

Accentuate the positive, disguise the negative

While it might seem like there’s never been an easier space to decorate than a rooftop bar or dining patio as the city’s skyline and mother nature has done most of the work for you. But, while an outdoor backdrop might be beautiful, that’s not always the case. If your space has a view of an unsightly highway or is exposed to electrical wires, for example, you may need to consider using creative cover-ups.

Screens, tents, and plants are among some of the simpler solutions, but walls or other reinforced structures that block noise and less-than-attractive views might be necessary. If your view is impeccable, however, don’t disguise a thing. Using clear siding is a great way to maximize exposure to a breathtaking view of the city or landscape. Even a not-so-attractive daytime view brightens up at night, so it’s important to be aware of the time of day your area will be used before disguising or giving prominence to the surroundings.

Accentuating the positive and disguising the negative is the first step to creating an idyllic ambiance up on your roof.

Define Your Usage

If after doing your due diligence it seems like a rooftop addition is a realistic possibility, the final set of decisions revolves around how you'll use the space. Your rooftop can function as an additional dining area, open-air bar, outdoor movie theater, nightclub, or as a rental space for weddings, parties, and special events.

The intended use of your rooftop addition will dictate some of your construction decisions and possibly have an impact on the permits and approval process. Blocking views, loud music, bright lights, and other possibly intrusive issues must be taken into consideration before the rooftop space will be approved, so before investing your time and money and starting construction at all, be sure you’ve thought it all through.

If you’re a bit vertically-thinking challenged, here are a few unique ways to utilize your rooftop space.

  • Coffee Lounge

  • Beer Garden

  • Brunch buffet

  • Extended fine dining area

  • Self-service seating

  • Open-air movie theater

  • Dance Club

  • Wedding venue

  • Party rental space

  • Yoga studio and juice bar

  • Art gallery cafe

  • Urban garden

  • Plant nursery/cafe combination

  • Live music venue

Top 5 New York City Rooftop Restaurants

Dinner with a view and a light breeze is the kind of thing that makes city life a bit more livable when the temps rise. Thankfully, the rooftop restaurant options in and around NYC have grown in recent years, and these spots aren’t just pretty. New York has a wide variety of sky-high restaurants run by top chefs and bars with an array of beer, wine, and cocktails to match the sweeping skyline views. Here are a few of our favorites.

The Fulton, 89 South Street, Financial District

Among the lowest of all NYC’s rooftop restaurants, The Fulton still has one of the best views. See the sparkling East River, two bridge tableaux, and the coast of Brooklyn across the way. The waterside spot’s menu is seafood forward, but broad enough to satisfy a variety of taste buds.

Laser Wolf - 97 Wythe Avenue, Williamsburg

Chef Michael Solomonov, a Philadelphia import, just opened this NY rooftop hotspot in May ‘22, and it is already one of the city’s most popular open air dining options. Celebrating the flavors and colors of Israel, this casually flashy location with fantastic views from The Hoxton Hotel’s rooftop level, offers a fun, electric, and buzz-worthy vibe, stunning views, and delicious food. With a menu that’s a mix of skewers and of salatim, including sensational hummus and baba ganoush, the atmosphere and environment make nabbing a table reminiscent of the long lines at the once famed Studio 54.

Brooklyn Crab, 24 Reed St, Red Hook

Elevated on stilts and spanning three stories, this stand-alone restaurant, clad in wharf-themed decor like lobster traps, fishing rods, and a mounted shark's head, is like a Maine-style crab shack in the heart of New York. Customers can gather for a round of minigolf or cornhole then grab a picnic table and dig into simple coastal fare like peel-and-eat shrimp and steam pots brimming with lobster, crab mussels, and corn-on-the-cob. Set to be a summer destination for tourists and locals alike, this rooftop hotspot is not one to be missed.

Alma - 187 Columbia St - Brooklyn

Set on Columbia Street’s restaurant row, the rooftop patio sits atop of this three-story year-round hotspot, offering upscale Mexican fare in a casual atmosphere. With breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, food ranges from old standards like freshly prepared guac to sophisticated dishes like huachinango a la naranja, a red snapper with orange sauce.

Sushi Lab - Midtown West - 132 West 47th Street

Guests can enjoy sushi with a view at this open-air rooftop restaurant recently opening on the roof of the Sanctuary Hotel. With bright, beautiful omakase as breathtaking as the views, Sushi lab is an experience as much as it is a restaurant. À la carte items are also available, including classic sushi, sashimi, creative hand rolls, and a variety of cocktails.

Take away

Building a rooftop restaurant is a great way to expand your restaurant’s footprint, increase profits, and tap into a whole new customer base. Taking all of these tips and strategies into consideration is the first step towards raising the roof of your restaurant’s operation. When it comes to rooftop dining, the sky is definitely the only limit.

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By Eileen Strauss


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