The Future of Outside Dining: Statistics and Trends in 2021

by Delany Lemke

COVID-19 has changed our world dramatically, and the restaurant business is no exception. It’s been extremely tough to run a restaurant in the past year and a half, but many businesses have found ways to adapt and continue attracting customers. One of the main ways that they’ve done this is by expanding their outdoor dining options so that cautious customers can feel more comfortable enjoying their meals in the open air. Look no further than a google search to tell you there are quite a few enthusiastic advocates for this change.

So, before we dive into trends and celebrate the exterior experience, let’s just run through some of the data that demonstrates why restaurant owners might want to think more about the great outdoors. The National Restaurant Association creates a State of The Restaurant Industry report every year, and you’ll want to hear these stats.

What are the numbers telling us?

Obviously, the restaurant industry took a hit with the pandemic, but this isn’t because consumers don’t want to be there! 88% of adults surveyed this year told us they enjoy going to restaurants. However, their habits have changed big time.

Of the roughly half of adults surveyed who said they plan to eat on the premises at a restaurant, only 36% said they were planning to eat indoors. 25% said they would eat at an outdoor table, which is a pretty significant chunk of the customer base. Then a whopping 70% said they’d probably head over to a restaurant if there was an enclosed, temperature controlled, ventilated area with social distancing measures in place.

Dining off premises seemed to be the most popular option. 77% of adults surveyed said they planned to get takeout, delivery, or drive thru food. 53% of adults said that takeout was essential to the way they live.

So, how did restaurants respond to these changes? Here’s a breakdown of how many restaurants did some outdoor expansion: 48% of family dining, 56% of casual dining, 62% of fine dining, 23% of quick service, 37% of fast casual, and 30% of coffee and snack. That is a whole lot of renovations, and most of operators want to keep some of these changes indefinitely.

That was a lot of numbers. Let’s talk about some of the changes and trends we’re seeing in restaurants as they adapt to this new world we’re working with.

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Outdoor Opla Barstools, Image by Andrew Welch Photos

Brighten up that Exterior

Restaurants are increasingly focused on the look of their establishments from the street. Restaurant Design and Development Magazine has quite a few tips to make your eatery enticing from the roadways, like lighting and colorful paint.

LED lights and custom neon signage can turn a simple building into a dreamy glowing oasis at night. Humans are made moths by the right choice of lighting. We just have to get closer to see what is going on. Lights can match the color of your brand, making it that more recognizable, even when it’s dark outside. String lights are also super popular for patios, for a nice warm glow over evening diners.

You might want to consider adding fun murals to your buildings. Who doesn’t love an Instagrammable backdrop for a cute day out photo? Find a local artist to paint an interactive design on your exterior and let it turn into free advertising. Take for example those huge angel wings that went up in the Nashville Gulch district. People line up to pose with the iconic backdrop and they’ve been recreated all over.

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Outdoor Hula Barstools, Image by Nolan Dean Photography

Bolster your Outdoor Seating Arrangements

We’ve seen full city streets turned into outdoor dining spaces. People are making way for seating on sidewalks and in parking lots. With such a big section of potential customers who say they would prefer to sit outdoors or in temperature controlled, socially distant areas, you might want to consider expanding the outside seating options you offer.

Picking the right tables and chairs for your outdoor areas is essential. Consider the weather that you get at your restaurant. Is there shade? Is it rainy? Snowy? You will want durable outdoor commercial furniture that has been tested against the elements. Pay attention to what materials will not respond well to whatever the seasons are bringing your way and how the sun falls throughout your business day. Maybe you’ll need table umbrellas or awnings to protect your guests from heat during lunch hours.

There are lots of great outdoor trends you can add for your customers. Some restaurants feature electric fire pits that customers can eat around. Games can also be a great addition for something to do while you wait for food. Something as simple as a swinging a ring tied to a rope towards a hook on the wall can keep people entertained for hours, and I’m speaking from experience here.

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Opla Outdoor Barstools, Image by SOW Plated

Consider the Takeout Experience

No matter what kind of restaurant you’re running, there’s a good chance you’re getting a lot of takeout orders. How are restaurants meeting the needs of customers who are just picking up their food to eat elsewhere?

Some fast-food places are putting extra funding into their drive-thru lanes. Whether that is adding additional screens or awnings that protect from the rain, restaurant owners want to make sure their customers have an efficient and clear journey through their drive thru. Natalie Anderson Liu, VP of Mooyah, told Restaurant Design and Development Magazine, “I never want people to have to circle the building a couple of times. We wanted to make sure the entrance to the drive-thru is very well marked so we’re doing that with lighted signage that helps show customers where to go.”

If you aren’t a restaurant that is serving fast food at the drive-thru speed, you might consider adding a takeout window, like da Gama Canteen in Houston, where customers can walk right up to order and grab their food. Or if you aren’t in a super walkable area, a few curbside pickup spots in your parking lot could be useful to your customers.

Whatever your needs are, make sure you’re thinking of ways to design for not only an optimal interior dining experience, but also an optimal dining experience for those who are just stopping by to take food home. Hopefully there will be a day those loyal takeout customers will feel comfortable enough to return inside.

If you're thinking of expanding your outdoor seating, this guide to outdoor fabrics for commercial furniture might be helpful!

*Featured Image: Outdoor Sadie II by Dean Van Dis Photography

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