The biggest trend in outdoor seating is to have outdoor seating. Al fresco dining is nothing new. Traditionally, many restaurants and foodservice operations have offered outdoor seating, especially where the outdoors have something special to offer, such as great views or a pleasant climate. Historically, many fast-food chains and concession stands have also offered outdoor seating as a convenience. But outdoor dining has recently become a much more important element for any foodservice operation regardless of their service style or location. The pandemic of 2020 changed the way many consumers think about indoor social gatherings, and it forced operators outdoors to make up for lost seating capacity indoors. At the same time, furniture manufacturers have made significant improvements in the comfort and quality of outdoor seating, so customers are more likely to enjoy their open-air experience.
Outdoor Seating Trends
Why Outdoor Seating is a Trend for Commercial Foodservice
Both operators and customers have driven the increasing demand for outdoor seating at restaurants and foodservice establishments. Both can benefit from the trend.
Safety – Throughout the 2020 pandemic, authorities told consumers that outdoor activities were safer. Weddings, concerts, funeral services, political rallies, exercise classes, and other social events were all moved outdoors to maintain health and safety. It was no different for restaurants. Operators leveraged patios, parking lots, rooftops, and lawns to offer customers a safer dining option. Many municipalities made special provisions for sidewalk dining to help operators remain viable. Even though restrictions have eased, it’s reasonable to assume that many safety-conscious consumers will still gravitate toward venues with outdoor seating.
Expanding Capacity – Also during the pandemic of 2020, social distancing requirements forced many operators to limit their dining room seating capacity by 50% or more. The earning potential of a dining room is always limited by the number of available seats, so restaurants and commercial foodservice operations desperately sought out new spaces to add seating capacity. In many instances, this meant outdoors. A 100-seat indoor dining room operating at 50% could conceivably maintain their total earning potential by adding 50 additional seats outdoors. And once indoor seating capacity returned to 100%, they had 50% more earning potential than before the pandemic.
Experience – More and more, customers aren’t just looking for a good meal. Modern consumers want a dining experience. It has been said that the best food you ever ate was likely served indoors. But your most memorable dining experience you ever had was likely outdoors. Al fresco dining has always had a popular appeal. Whether sitting at a café table on a busy city street or dining on a quiet balcony overlooking the mountains, outdoor dining provides relief from the enclosed spaces and four walls of home and office. Outdoor dining can be charming, relaxing, romantic, adventurous, exciting, or even celebratory. For most, it is at least a break from the norm, and for many, it is a great opportunity to share selfies with friends and family on any number of social media platforms.
Comfort & Technology – For many, outdoor dining has become a more acceptable option because outdoor seating has become much more pleasant and comfortable. No longer are customers relegated to stone benches, splinter-ridden wooden picnic tables, or rusty metal mesh tables. New manufacturing techniques provide contoured polymer and metal chairs, with or without cushions, that provide more comfort than traditional hard, flat seats and seat backs. New technology has resulted in a wider variety of weather resistant materials and finishes. New powder coatings perform better than paint and the vibrant colors and clean surfaces are more inviting and appealing.
Considerations when Selecting Outdoor Seating
Just like equipment, outdoor seating is an investment. To avoid a regrettable purchase, several issues should be considered before selecting. A Kitchen Spot expert can help you sort through the various issues and identify your own unique needs.
Durability – As with indoor seating, commercial quality matters, even if it comes at a higher price point. Outdoor furniture needs to be durable. Outdoor seating either remains outdoors for long periods of time (e.g., days, seasons, years) or it is removed and placed in storage after each use. In the first case, the seating must hold up to sun, rain, wind, and freezing temperatures. In the latter case, it must hold up to frequent lifting, moving, dragging, and stacking. In either case you need furniture that is durable enough to withstand the intended use.
Cleanability – Anyone who has had an outdoor patio set knows that outdoor seating can be challenging to keep clean. Birds, insects, pollen, dust, and smog can fowl surfaces. Constant exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun can damage finishes. Salt air can erode some materials making them harder to clean. Excessive moisture and humidity can cause mold that must be removed. Choose seating designed specifically for commercial outdoor use and ease of cleaning.
Maintenance Requirements – Even durable and cleanable furniture may require periodic maintenance. Broken, bent, cracked, or dented parts can be the result of accidents or mishandling. Failed joints may need to be repaired and failed hardware replaced. With metal furniture, rust and corrosion are a constant threat to the integrity and value of your investment. Wood furniture needs occasional refinishing. When purchasing outdoor commercial seating, consider how much time, effort, and money you’re willing to put into repairs and maintenance.
Weight – Permanent or semi-permanent seating must be heavy enough to stand up to heavy winds and other severe weather. Temporary seating that will be taken in every night should be lightweight for easy handling. Foldable and stackable options are favorable for ease of storage.
Heat – Some materials, especially metals, become very hot to touch after sitting in the mid-summer sun. This can be uncomfortable for customers, especially if they are wearing shorts with bared legs. Consider your environment and how your customers are typically attired. In hot sunny areas, polymer or wood furniture may be more comfortable than metal, or you may want to choose a style of seating that can easily be fitted with removable cushions.
Indoor/Outdoor Options– Especially in casual settings, some outdoor commercial seating options may be just as appropriate for indoor use. Seating that can serve both purposes provides versatility. Seating can be moved indoors or outdoors without compromising design choices.
Types of Commercial Foodservice Outdoor Seating
Manufacturers such as Grosfillex and Emuamericas offer a large variety of outdoor seating options. A Kitchen Spot expert can help you select the best materials and finishes for your restaurant or foodservice operation. Most commercial outdoor seating is manufactured from one or more of the following.
Stainless Steel – Very durable and long lasting. Stainless Steel contains anti corrosive elements like nickel and chromium, so it is usually expensive, virtually rust free, and very easy to clean. It is ideal for coastal areas with high humidity and high salt climates. It can be painted, or powder coated to match a desired color or design.
Wrought Iron – Well-made wrought iron seating is heavy and great in high wind areas. It usually has a high price point but provides an upscale look and feel. Wrought iron does not contain anti corrosive metals like nickel and chromium, so it will rust, but it contains a relatively low amount of carbon so it rusts more slowly than carbon steel. It is usually painted, or powder coated, and rust removal and refinishing is required every few years.
Carbon Steel – As durable and sturdy as stainless steel, it is typically less expensive because it does not contain anti corrosive elements like nickel and chromium. It does, however, contain carbon and will rust more quickly than wrought iron. It is usually powder coated for protection against the elements, but scratches, scrapes, bumps, and rubs can remove the coating and allow rust to begin forming. Seasonal or annual rust removal and refinishing is often necessary.
Aluminum – Aluminum is less expensive than stainless steel, and much lighter. It is generally durable but not as strong as stainless steel, wrought iron, or carbon steel. It doesn’t rust and is easy to clean and maintain. It can be painted or powder-coated to avoid oxidation.
Wood – Classic appeal and very durable in most climates. Different types of wood perform better than others. Teak wood is one of the most expensive options, but teak is known for strength and weather resistance. Whatever type of wood you choose, make sure it is treated to withstand weather conditions in your area. Wood may require annual refinishing and occasional repairs due to splintering, splitting, loose joints, or hardware failures.
Resin/Plastic– One of the most popular choices, it is lightweight and usually very easy to clean. Resin and plastic seating comes in an enormous number of styles and colors so it’s easy to create the look and feel you want. Many feature contoured seats and seat backs, with arm rests. Resin and plastic seating is also more economical than wood or metal options. Over time, sun and extreme temperatures will take a toll on most resin and plastic furniture. It becomes brittle and fades. Keeping it covered when not in use will extend its life.
Fabrics – Seating made with heavy duty canvas or polymer webbing is comfortable, cool, lightweight, and usually value priced compared to metal and wood alternatives. It’s popular at poolside for comfort and lounging, but it is not known for long term durability. It stretches, fades, and breaks. It can be cut, torn, or punctured if mishandled. It generally requires frequent maintenance and/or replacement. While weather resistant fabric cushions are a great way to add design elements and comfort to sturdier furnishings, fabric or webbed seats and seat backs do not typically hold up well to the rigors of commercial use.
Other Outdoor Seating Products
A number of other products are designed to improve outdoor dining. Some have been around for years, but the trend toward outdoor seating has prompted new interest and demand.
Outdoor Heating – A recent study showed that most customers are willing to dine outdoors in temperatures of 61°F or above. To help maintain those temperatures, propane patio heaters and fire pits provide for more comfortable dining in colder climates or later in the season. Fire pits can also be a charming and inviting centerpiece for an outdoor lounge area.
Insect Control – During insect season, various types of fans and air curtains prevent mosquitoes, flies, and gnats from congregating. They can also provide a pleasant breeze. For foodservice, they are favored over insecticide sprays and fogs. Traditional citronella candles and tiki torches are charming and can also help repel insects.
Protection – Modern retractable awnings can provide relief from direct sun or the occasional light rain shower. Traditional table umbrellashave also been improved with more weather resistant fabrics and better designs for windy conditions. Custom umbrellas also provide a great surface for marketing and advertising brands and products.
The trend toward outdoor seating is not simply a passing fad or local novelty. It is driven, in part, by enduring customer concerns about safety in social settings. It is also driven by operators who are constantly struggling to compete and maintain their seating capacity and earning potential in a volatile market. Spaces such as balconies, rooftops, patios, lawns, and spare parking lots are no longer simply favorable property features. They are opportunities for increased profits and growth. Many seating options are available for those who have any outdoor space to work with, no matter how large or small. A Kitchen Spot expert can help you evaluate your needs and make the best selection.