With indoor capacity limited throughout much of the pandemic, the ability to offer outdoor dining is a lifeline for many restaurants. In a September 2021 survey fielded by the Association, 65% of restaurant operators said they offered on-premises outdoor dining in a space such as a patio, deck or sidewalk. That’s up from 57% in April 2021, and roughly on par with the 67% who reported similarly in September 2020.

Seventy-two percent of fullservice operators say their restaurant offered on-premises outdoor dining in September, while 57% of limited-service operators offered on-premises outdoor seating in September.

Outdoor dining represents a significant proportion of business for restaurants that offer it. Overall, 35% of operators that offer outdoor seating say it accounts for more than 40% of their average daily sales. Fifteen percent of operators say it represents more than 70% of their daily sales.

Outdoor dining is even more important to the fullservice segment. Forty-one percent of fullservice operators that offer outdoor seating say it accounts for more than 40% of their average daily sales. Sixteen percent of fullservice operators say it represents more than 70% of their daily sales.

Twenty-nine percent of limited-service operators that offer outdoor seating say it accounts for more than 40% of their average daily sales. Thirteen percent say it represents more than 70% of their daily sales.

Delta variant increased demand for outdoor dining

The delta variant negatively impacted the restaurant industry in recent weeks, according to most restaurant operators. In a September 2021 survey fielded by the Association, 78% of operators said their restaurant experienced a decline in customer demand for indoor on-premises dining in recent weeks, as a result of the increase in coronavirus cases due to the delta variant.

At the same time, 61% of operators that offer outdoor dining said their restaurant experienced an increase in customer demand for outdoor seating in recent weeks, as a result of the increase in coronavirus cases due to the delta variant.

This was more likely to occur in the fullservice segment, with 71% of operators that offer outdoor dining saying the delta variant led to an increase in customer demand for outdoor seating in recent weeks. Fifty-one percent of limited-service operators that offer outdoor dining reported similarly.

Winter is coming

As important as it has been for their survival during the pandemic, the outdoor dining season is winding down for a majority of restaurants. In the Association’s September 2021 survey, 54% of operators said their restaurant would only be able to continue offering outdoor seating for 1 or 2 more months, based on traditional weather patterns in their area. Only 36% of operators said they plan to continue offering outdoor seating throughout the upcoming fall and winter.

Outdoor seating in the limited-service segment is more likely to be available for the entire year. Forty-two percent of limited-service operators said they plan to continue offering outdoor seating throughout the upcoming fall and winter. Only 30% of fullservice operators reported similarly.

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