A concern for many restaurant operators is that the approaching winter weather will lead to a further decline in on-premise traffic, as outdoor dining becomes less of an option in many parts of the country. However, new Association research points to a loyal customer base, as well as a willingness to help extend the outdoor dining season.

Forty-three percent of adults said they went out to a restaurant for dinner last week, according to a new survey fielded by the National Restaurant Association. While this was up substantially from the dearth of on-premises traffic during the height of the lockdowns in the spring, it remained well below the 60% of adults who dined out for dinner during the last week of February.

Dining-out frequency remains dampened across all age groups, compared to pre-pandemic levels. Only 28% of baby boomers said they went out for dinner last week – down from 51% in late-February. Forty-seven percent of Gen Z adults dined out for dinner last week, compared to 69% eight months ago.

On-premises lunch traffic also remains below pre-pandemic levels across all age groups. Thirty percent of adults said they went out to a restaurant for lunch last week – down from 39% during the last week in February. Baby boomers saw the largest dropoff – from 32% in late-February to just 18% last week. 

While the customer base for on-premises dining is significantly smaller than pre-pandemic levels, these consumers do appear to be willing to maintain their frequency as winter approaches. Among adults who dined out for lunch or dinner last week, 35% said they plan to increase their on-premises frequency during the next three months. Only 26% said they plan to dine out less frequently.

Men (45%) were nearly twice as likely as women (23%) to say they plan to dine out for lunch or dinner more frequently during the next three months. Gen-Xers were the most likely age cohort to say they plan to go out more often. 

A majority of urban residents and individuals in higher-income households said they plan to dine out for lunch or dinner more frequently during the next three months. Residents in the West and Northeast were more likely than their counterparts in the Midwest and South to say they will go out to eat more often.

For restaurant operators looking to extend their outdoor dining season, the good news is that they likely have willing patrons. Among adults who dined out at a restaurant for lunch or dinner last week, 75% said they would be likely to go to a restaurant and be seated outside in an enclosed and heated tent, if standard social distancing measures were followed.

This outdoor dining option may even nudge some new customers into an on-premises visit. Among adults who only ordered takeout or delivery for lunch or dinner last week (and didn’t dine on premises), 44% said they would be likely to go to a restaurant and sit outside in an enclosed and heated tent. 

Read more analysis and commentary from the Association's chief economist Bruce Grindy.