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Food Service Industry Updates

Restaurant Recovery? It Depends on the Region


How’s that restaurant recovery coming along? It depends on what region of the country we’re talking about. As the NPD Group says in a recent report: Geography matters when it comes to pandemic recovery for U.S. restaurant chains.

“I often get the question, when will the U.S. restaurant industry improve, and part of the answer is one market at a time,” said David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “My advice to restaurant operators, foodservice distributors and manufacturers is to have a national view but act locally.”

According to the market researcher, several factors — like pandemic-related restaurant restrictions, the closing or opening of units and even the weather — can impact restaurant chain customer transactions in a specific market area. For example, restaurant chain customer transaction declines in the Dallas-Fort Worth area improved from double-digit declines last year to -4% in May 2021 compared to May 2019, a pre-pandemic basis of comparison. Dallas-Fort Worth ranks in the top 10 markets to recover from the steep customer transaction declines caused by the pandemic last year.

In addition to Texas lifting COVID restaurant restrictions in March, the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s May customer transactions reflect new restaurant units opening and a 10% increase in fast-casual chain transactions compared to a year ago, according to NPD’s CREST Performance Alerts, which provides a quick weekly view of chain-specific transactions and share trends for 75 quick-service, fast-casual, midscale and casual-dining chains representing 53% of the commercial restaurant traffic in the U.S. 

In addition to the Dallas-Fort Worth market, NPD said other top market areas showing improvements in restaurant chain customer transaction declines in May are Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Orlando and Birmingham, Ala. All these markets are in areas where restaurant restrictions had been eased or lifted as of May, and fast-casual chain customer transactions grew.

The recent increases in fast-casual chain restaurant transactions were an improvement from the beginning of the pandemic when fast-casual restaurants didn’t do as well as traditional quick-service restaurants, according to NPD. Traditional quick-service restaurants were well-equipped before the pandemic to handle off-premises operations like carry out, delivery and drive-thru.

Most fast-casual chains, which relied more heavily on dine-in and didn’t have drive-thru operations, were not. As fast-casual chains quickly pivoted to focus on off-premises operations and restrictions were eased, their situation improved, NPD said. In May 2021, total U.S. fast-casual chain customer transactions increased by 2% compared to May 2019, and customer transactions grew over the May 2019 levels in 30 of the top 50 markets.

Total U.S. restaurant chain customer transactions across all segments declined by 9% in May 2021 compared to May 2019.