When you're opening a restaurant, your floor plan must balance two opposing goals: squeeze in enough people to make a profit and provide enough space that your patrons feel comfortable. A big, spacious building can accommodate more people with more space, but it costs more than a cramped hole-in-the-wall. You'll have to calculate seating capacity as part of your business planning.

Seating Capacity Per Square Foot

It would be convenient if there was a simple formula to calculate seating capacity that applied to all restaurants, but that's not the case. There are multiple factors that shape seating capacity per square foot, and you'll need to figure those out before you can get to the seating numbers.

  • What's your concept? Fine dining takes around 18 to 20 square feet whereas fast food restaurants may be able to get by with as little as 11 square feet per patron. Different experts give different figures.

  • Are your tables round, rectangular or square? It's easier to squeeze more chairs around a round table, but a large party can fit square and rectangular tables together to create a super-sized table.

  • Do you want to go small with your establishment, hoping to create an area of exclusivity?

  • If you base your capacity on the peak crowds you expect, will your building look empty in slow periods? A small, crowded eatery has more appeal than a large venue with an array of empty tables.

Some basic considerations remain the same, whatever your concept:

  • You need enough space between tables for wait staff to move and for customers to leave their seats easily.

  • At each table, customers should be able to eat, drink and gesture without hitting whoever is sitting next to them.

  • What's the maximum seating allowed by the fire code? Like seating capacity, there isn't a ​room capacity calculator for fire code​: It's affected by the number and location of the exits and how easy it would be for everyone to get outside if the worst happens.

Income vs. Outflow

Along with spacing and layout, you have to consider what effect your floor plan will have on your business income. The more your location costs, the more income you need from your customers. Even if your gross income is good, the net income left over after you subtract expenses from the gross may be inadequate.

If you plan a fine dining restaurant, diners will probably stay a long time and hopefully spend well. With fast food, you want enough turnover to make up for small individual orders. Either way, you want the rent or mortgage payments to run, at most, around 10 percent of overall sales.

Calculate Seating Capacity: An Example

Suppose you're about to launch a French bistro with top-quality cooking and wine. You're considering a 4,000 square foot restaurant location. The industry rule of thumb is that 40% of your space goes to the kitchen storage and prep areas, so you'd have 1,600 square feet for business and 2,400 square feet for your patrons.

You want a low seating capacity per square foot so your customers will feel comfortable. You opt for 20 feet per customer, so you calculate seating capacity as 120 seats maximum. The floor plan considers the seating, the location of the wait stations, the space between the tables and the fire code safety requirements.

Then comes the financial considerations based on your market research and studying the local restaurant industry:

  • Will you be able to fill most of the seats in the near future? It's more cost-effective to plan for the restaurant you have now, not the size you hope to be down the road.

  • Can the local market afford prices that will enable you to cover expenses?

  • If the numbers don't look good, is there a way you can cut costs? Or would it be smarter to look for a different venue?