What are consumer preferences for outdoor dining?

No one needs to convince Costanzo Astarita of outdoor dining’s value. At Baraonda, Astarita’s chic, yet casual eatery in midtown Atlanta, two al fresco dining areas—a 14-seat front area that faces the well-traveled Peachtree Street and a second, 30-seat spot tucked along the corner building’s side—help the 13-year-old restaurant drive business in a competitive restaurant market.

“As soon as spring comes around, our numbers head upward, and having our two patios allows us to capture more business than our competitors who don’t have the benefit of an outdoor dining space,” Astarita says.

Some nights, in fact, Astarita’s staff has more requests for outdoor tables than it can fulfill, some diners even bypassing available dining room tables and waiting north of 30 minutes for an outdoor seat.

By leveraging skyline views, waterfront vistas, sunsets, people watching, and more, outdoor dining can offer a sense of time, place, and wonder that even the most intriguing indoor spaces cannot. By bringing socialization outside and drawing positive attention to the establishment, outdoor spots can also add value to a restaurant by increasing the seating capacity and boosting revenue potential.

“When people see guests dining outside, it gives an energy to the place and reminds people of the hospitality they, too, can expect when they walk in our doors,” says Chris Devlin, senior vice president of new business development for Bar Louie, a casual bar and grill concept with more than 80 restaurants spread across 25 states.

To wit, Devlin points to one of the Bar Louie system’s most dynamic outdoor spaces: a 100-seat patio at Bar Louie’s uptown Minneapolis location that surrounds a shallow LED-lit pool.

“Minnesota isn’t exactly a place that jumps to mind when people think of outdoor dining, but here’s a restaurant that has used its unique outdoor dining space to be one of the top-performing units in our system,” Devlin says.

In January, FSR teamed with Study Hall Research, a Tampa, Florida–based market research firm, to conduct an exclusive nationwide survey of more than 3,200 adults with the expressed purpose of better understanding consumer perceptions regarding outdoor dining at full-service restaurants. The survey examined consumers’ outdoor dining habits, perceptions, and the factors that compel them to dine al fresco, which respondents largely defined as a space without walls or a fence but an umbrella at each table or a permanent roof.

The survey’s results, collected from 439 respondents, spotlight the key elements that guests seek in a positive outdoor dining experience, while simultaneously providing restaurateurs a deeper understanding of al fresco dining’s relevancy to their concept, its demographics, and market.


Driven to Dine Al Fresco 

Why Do Diners Choose Outdoors?

Most Important:
What companions want
Nice views
Noise level
Overhead cover

Medium Importance:
Shorter wait time
Temperature control
Nice furniture

Less Important:
TV screens
Outdoor bar
Decorative fireplaces

The FSR-Study Hall survey inquired about factors that influenced one’s decision to dine outdoors. Not surprisingly, weather dominated the list of considerations with warm, cold, and humid weather registering as three of the top four decision-driving factors. Other important factors propelling diners’ decisions to take an outdoor seat included: a companion’s desire to eat outdoors, a long wait time for an indoor table, overhead covering, scenic views, and traffic noise.

Zeroing in further, full-service restaurant diners who do not have children under the age of 18 living in their household are more likely to be influenced to sit outdoors at a restaurant if there is live music playing. These same folks can also be more easily swayed to sit outdoors by their dining companions.

The findings certainly play out at Bar Louie’s downtown Fort Worth, Texas, restaurant, where the often-packed, 131-seat rooftop patio is open year-round and provides diners dynamic city views and live music. The rooftop location also distances diners from street-level traffic.

Similarly, Astarita says guests will regularly stay two or three hours on Baraonda’s 30-seat side patio, which faces the less traveled 3rd Street and features snapshots of Atlanta’s energetic skyline.

“This is a quieter section of the restaurant that lends itself to conversation and interesting views,” says Astarita, who also pulls out fans to cool the patio during Atlanta’s hot and humid summers.

Take ’em or Leave ’em

Perhaps more intriguing, however, were the factors that held little sway in guests’ decisions to dine outdoors. Decorative fireplaces, televisions, and the quality of the landscaping, three design elements that some eateries devote considerable dollars to, weren’t shown to heavily influence diners’ decision to seek an outdoor table.

Devlin, however, offers a word of caution. While acknowledging that the presence of a fireplace or fire pit might not compel guests to dine outside, he says having such elements, particularly in Northeast or Midwest climates that offer a shorter outdoor dining period, can extend the al fresco dining season into cooler months. Having fire pits around, he adds, can accommodate guests’ desire to enjoy the outdoors after—or in preparation of—a long, holed-up winter.

“We see that when the temperature hits 50 degrees in many northern markets, the outdoor space begins seeing use, if not for an entire meal then certainly for some drinks,” Devlin says.

Casual Dining Pulls Outdoor Diners

Full-service restaurant diners are more likely to dine outside at casual-dining restaurants than either upscale eateries or family-dining spots. Nearly three in 10 respondents said they ate outside at least once a month at a casual-dining spot. In contrast, only 19 and 10 percent said they dined outside at least once a month at an upscale restaurant or family-dining unit, respectively.

While al fresco dining certainly requires an investment in hard goods such as furniture as well as added labor, the research suggests that casual-dining outfits might be leaving money on the table by ignoring outdoor dining’s potential to propel traffic and revenue.

Millennials Will Stay and Spend

Among all full-service diners queried, most reported that their seating in a dining room or outdoor patio did not influence their length of stay. Many, in fact, strongly disagreed that they ordered more food and drink when dining outdoors compared to a restaurant’s dining room.

Yet those numbers shift based on age. In fact, 43 percent of diners in the 25 to 34-year-old age bracket—the prized Millennials—said they spent more money on alcohol when dining outdoors, a flow of money that frequently accelerates with the presence of an outdoor bar. In contrast, only 11 percent of those 55 or over reported spending more money on alcohol during an outdoor dining visit.

For full-service establishments attracting a young demographic, the message is clear: An al fresco dining space—and particularly one featuring an outdoor bar—can entice higher tickets and bolster the eatery’s overall revenue.


Willing to Wait

The majority of full-service restaurant diners are likely to wait longer for indoor seating than outdoor seating. In fact, nearly 50 percent of the survey’s respondents said they would not wait longer than 10 minutes for an outdoor table.

But for those consumers content to wait for an outdoor seat, the revenue returns can be impressive. Among those consumers willing to wait longer for an al fresco dining experience, most agreed that they spent more time at the restaurant following their meal. For restaurants, this translates into a welcome opportunity to capture additional sales on alcoholic beverages, coffee, and the like.

Tapping into Tourism

According to the survey, 82 percent of full-service restaurant diners said they enjoyed outdoor dining more often when on vacation. Visitors enjoying the outdoor patio at the Belmont Brewing Company in Long Beach, California, for instance, can take pleasure in viewing miles of beach and ocean as well as the Long Beach skyline, the Queen Mary, and beachgoers, thereby providing diners a true Southern California experience.

Again, a compelling message emerges: Restaurants in tourism-heavy locales would be wise to explore investing in some level of outdoor seating that connects visitors to a sense of place.

Though many of the nation’s restaurants do not possess the brilliant annual weather of Long Beach and its warm-weather brethren, there remains an opportunity for restaurants across the country to similarly leverage their own compelling characteristics to lengthen the outdoor dining calendar.

If not defined as outdoor dining spaces by permanent coverings and heating equipment, features such as retractable garage doors enable restaurants to offer a desired sense of place and heighten their chances of capturing tourism dollars.

Al Fresco Dining’s Service Slowdown

Though diners largely feel the temperature and freshness of their food is the same whether they are enjoying their meal indoors or out, 74 percent felt service was slower outdoors.

As most outdoor dining spots are greater distances from the kitchen or bar than dining room seats, it’s understandable that food and drink will often take longer to get to the patrons’ tables. Recognizing this, a number of forward-thinking restaurants have tried to combat the issue by adding outdoor bars—permanent as well as portable varieties—alongside outdoor barbecues or chef workstations to expedite service.

Specifically in rooftop spaces, Bar Louie’s Devlin calls outdoor bars “essential” to quicken service. Yet more, he says the presence of an outdoor bar on a dining patio provides the space a focal point that can enhance the area’s energy level.

Knowing the Core Clientele

Though income levels can certainly vary by region, the FSR-Study Hall nationwide survey found that consumers with a household income of $30,000 to $50,000 were those most likely to increase their spending when dining outdoors than any other household income range of full-service diners.

With a strong understanding of its core clientele’s demographic makeup, including both age and household income, restaurant owners can make more informed decisions regarding their investment in either creating or updating an outdoor dining space.

The Outdoor Dining Perception Survey was conducted in January 2014 by Study Hall Research, Tampa, Florida. Surveys were completed by 439 respondents, age 18 years old and older. The Outdoor Dining Perception Survey met the business industry-accepted standard for precision in a 95 percent confidence interval with an error rate of less than plus or minus 5 percent.