When Taco Cabana first opened in San Antonio, Texas, nearly four decades ago, the only seating was outside. It was a simple, open-air taco stand with tables and chairs on a patio.

Nearly four decades later, the Mexican fast casual offers plenty of indoor seating, but the patio remains a major attraction and core element of the brand.

“If you look at the original language from our logo in 1978, it says ‘The Original Mexican Patio Café.’ So the patio has always been central to Taco Cabana,” says COO Todd Coerver. “When they started building freestanding units, the patio was always front and center.”

The patio is a relaxed yet festive place to enjoy all day, but especially during the daily 4–7 p.m. happy hour featuring $1.50 margaritas and discounts on nachos. Music from Mexico fills the colorful space, and brushed metal awnings resembling paper-cutout Mexican flags called papel picados add shade.

The patio is a huge draw for customers, so much that more than 30 percent of seating in new Taco Cabana units built today is outside. Coerver estimates that the patio plays a very important role in at least a third of the Taco Cabana business.

The patio thrives during happy hour, which encourages guests to stick around for dinner and buy full, more expensive entrées. In neighborhoods where the party-like atmosphere is especially strong, some restaurants will offer karaoke while others will bring in traditional Spanish guitarists.

If done right, al fresco dining can be a driving force in a fast casual. A delightful patio or other outdoor eating area can become a neighborhood landmark, bringing in diverse clientele such as families and dog lovers, as well as laid-back imbibers. It also encourages lingering, which leads to additional purchases; acts as a strong marketing tool; and upgrades a humble fast casual to a warm-weather destination.

That has certainly been the case for Baker & Nosh, a Chicago-based bakery that has not only an outdoor patio space but also a charming garden with plenty of seating.

When Baker & Nosh opened five years ago, the garden sold the owners on the space. Bill Millholland, co-owner and head baker, instantly loved the area, which is filled with grass and flowerbeds and features a stately stone fountain and wrought-iron fencing. The garden is accessible from the bakery through antique French doors, and customers are invited to bring bottles of wine or beer, spread out picnic blankets, and take sprigs from the herb garden home with them.

“It’s really turned into a destination for the neighborhood. It’s a green oasis in an otherwise urban area,” Millholland says. When Millholland switched the fountain back on in March, passersby told him how much they appreciated the lovely sound; they had been waiting all winter for Baker & Nosh’s fountain to start up again.

A comfortable and welcoming patio has helped make Fuzzy’s Taco Shop a destination across 13 states. The Fort Worth, Texas–based fast casual has made the patio a major brand identity point by putting guests’ comfort first. Patios feature misters as well as covers, which allow the patios to be used throughout much of the year in many locations. TVs display the latest sports news, upbeat music fills the air, and customers can enjoy a bar with indoor and outdoor service.

“[Fuzzy’s] food and drinks are really good, at a value price point, which attracts a lot of people. But the experience of being there is one of our great differentiators,” says Linda Veatch, director of marketing for Fuzzy’s.

Another great differentiator? Fuzzy’s welcomes canine companions to enjoy the patio (at least in locations where the health code permits it; fortunately, that’s most spots). Several operators have chewy bones on hand, and water is available if requested.

Whatever style of outdoor seating is offered, experts say, it is important that it fits with the food and overall restaurant experience.

For Taco Cabana, that means going the extra mile. Every few years the brand makes a trip to the interior of Mexico for culinary, cultural, and decor inspiration.

“The Taco Cabana patio so fits the vibe of Mexican food,” Coerver says. “It’s casual; it’s relaxed. Mexican food and the patio are both these simple, approachable, comfortable elements. … It’s always been a natural relationship in our minds.”

Customer Experience, Restaurant Operations, Story, Baker & Nosh, Fuzzy's Taco Shop, Taco Cabana