There really is a “pie in the sky” in the hospitality world, and lately, that’s rooftop bars, according to Armand Iaia, regional manager at Cini-Little International Inc., a consulting, planning and design firm based in Washington, D.C. These breezy bars and mini-restaurants, often with great views and lounge-like seating continue to grow in popularity.
While many boutique and multistory hotels capitalize on rooftop dining, even smaller, two-level bars and restaurants can enjoy the benefits, too. And, thanks to retractable and even semi-permanent roofing options, more operators can keep these spaces open year-round as an additional revenue source.
"The Millennial generation has become especially fond of these bars and love to take selfies with a cityscape in the background,” says Iaia. When customers send these pictures to their friends, the restaurant or hotel gets instant, free publicity. These rooftop bars become the place to be — and can offer patrons the al fresco dining they want if no other options exist. Not to mention, they can easily help hotels, bars and restaurants stand out from the competition.
That said, many considerations factor into planning a rooftop bar, according to Iaia. Planning stages can take some time, depending on how many hoops you have to jump through and how many players — from contractors to architects, structural engineers and others — need to be involved. Here, Iaia points out the various steps in the planning process, prioritizing them in order of importance.
Step 1: Look at the view
First of all, do you have the view that will entice people to come and then make them want to stay?
“People want to experience something that they do not have at home,” says Iaia. “They may not live in a high rise with a killer view from the balcony but this bar lets them have that experience, if only for a little while.” If the space provides only the view of another brick building, maybe a rooftop bar isn’t as necessary, unless you can step up the space with enhancements like greenery and other aesthetics.
And, if an operation does have a good view, consider how can the bar protect or enhance it. Who’s to say the building owner next door might not build a high rise in the near future that will block the view? Do your due diligence, Iaia recommends; discuss with the owner any plans or go one step further and purchase the “air rights” or “view easement” to protect views and block others from building too high.
2. Research and meet all code requirements
Determine early on if a bar on the roof is allowed in your area. If so, what is the maximum weight capacity? Does that include all the equipment and furnishings? That ranks as the most important thing to determine ahead of any other steps, says Iaia. Otherwise, you run the risk of having to backtrack on plans if your municipality won’t allow a rooftop bar for your building.
In addition to the mechanical, electrical and plumbing for the bar itself, it will need restroom facilities, sized for anticipated customer volume.
And then there is the issue of elevator access — how will customers get there and, most importantly, how will people be able to exit the rooftop in the case of an emergency? The project will need to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act laws, so it might be necessary to extend an existing elevator if it does not already have rooftop access.
After taking into account these considerations, have structural engineers, architects and the municipality carefully review everything and provide the necessary approvals.
3. Examine the existing rooftop space
What features can the available space accommodate? Is there room for a bar, seating, storage and other needs?
Most importantly, will the design need to accommodate for a condenser, exhaust or air conditioning unit on the rooftop? Rooftop exhaust systems create noise and smell, so it’s important to determine if a design can work around existing structures. If not, these pieces can be very costly to move or reconfigure, Iaia points out.
Also, consider your neighbors; will too much noise generating from the rooftop result in complaints? Will the city require the operation to shut down at a certain time? Take these considerations into account when determining if it’s worth the cost and effort to build a rooftop bar.
4. Carefully consider costs and budget
Of course, considering costs and budget is key. It can be costly to build a rooftop bar, and don’t overlook the add-ons like retractable roofs and more.
A canvas awning or some trellises with landscaping for shade protection might cost less than a semi-permanent or retractable roof with all the mechanical bells and whistles, but it limits the length of time throughout the year that you can generate revenue from the rooftop.
In some cases, health departments might require kitchen or rooftop enclosures to prevent pests and other vermin from getting into the space.
And, in the case of older buildings, it can be costly to make upgrades, such as elevator access or structural reinforcements. “If it’s going to take 5 to 10 years to be profitable you have to determine if a rooftop bar is worth it,” says Iaia.
5. Study your market
Say you’re ready to build the rooftop. At this point, it’s crucial to know your customers. “Those in their 30s, 40s and 50s want different things than twentysomethings,” says Iaia. The more mature crowd might want more table service and enhanced seating and decor, while operators with a younger clientele might be able to get away with a more casual environment.
6. Develop the menu and nature of the drink service
Once you know your clientele, develop the food and drink menu. Are cocktails the focus with only limited menu items? Or will you have a larger bar menu? This can dictate whether you go with just cold storage for chilled appetizers, or have to figure out a way to transport food from the main kitchen to the rooftop.
“It is a good idea to offer food of some sort as it further conveys the image of ‘class’ and helps justify the cost you are charging for the drinks,” says Iaia. Then you need to consider what you will use to serve the food — will it be china and glassware, disposables, or non-breakable servingware? These choices need to go hand in hand with the image of higher end or casual, whichever you’re trying to convey.
7. Consider kitchen and storage needs
As with any remote kitchen design, you’ll need a three-compartment sink to keep in line with health department requirements.
The kitchen will also need adequate pantry space for storage of ice, backup beer/liquor and food. And remember to consider trash. “It is a certainty that you will have it and you will need to hold it someplace until it can be brought down to the main trash holding area,” says Iaia. “If you are planning on serving food, the trash will become more of an issue since leftover food scraps will start to smell after a while when the weather is warm and those odors can turn off people you want to be at your roof top bar.”
8. Don’t forget about weatherproofing
In some cities, like Chicago, winds can get up to powerful speeds on a rooftop. That might dictate furniture choices, such as choosing pieces that are heavier and have the capability of being nailed down. Consider pieces that can handle rain and won’t rust or wear down, like wood.
If there is no additional storage to move the kitchen equipment or furniture, consider tarps or creating a more permanent enclosure on the roof. Mechanical pieces cannot be left out in the rain and snow for long periods of time. If there is storage in other areas of the building, consider purchasing equipment on wheels so they can be moved during the off-season if the rooftop does not have permanent or semi-permanent enclosures.
9. Consider other aesthetics
What, if any, kind of landscaping will the operation feature and will the landscape and the seating areas need to accommodate high winds? “Potted plants and greenery can make the space feel like you’re in a garden,” says Iaia. But if there are high winds, consider using shorter plants. It’s also possible to build glass screens, about 48-inches high, to block wind and other elements without blocking views.
And while natural greenery and trees do enhance a space, they require watering and other maintenance. Permanent or semi-permanent irrigation systems can help solve this issue, but the building structure plans must account for this increased load.
10. Manage new staffing needs and operational changes
“With a rooftop bar, you’re essentially adding a whole new facility so you have to have enough people to staff it accordingly,” says Iaia. That means additional bartenders, servers, and other backup support to manage the rooftop while the rest of the restaurant or hotel continues to operate.
Once all these considerations and design needs have been met, let the public know about your new bar, says Iaia. “Then, get ready to welcome the guests and let the partying begin!”