Will independent restaurants outperform restaurant chains in near future?

Restaurant industry sales once again showed stalled growth during May, notes a Blackbox Intelligence report from TDn2K. Across the restaurant industry nationally, May showed a same store sales decline of 1.1 percent for chain restaurants (negative comparable sales vs. LY) and a traffic (guest count) decrease of 3.0 percent. The Blackbox Intelligence report captures chain sales from 155 brands and reflects $67B in total annual revenue, approximately 10 percent of sales produced from all restaurants across the U.S.

This May’s restaurant sales report shows the fragility of growth for restaurant business. Additionally, the last three months of (rolling) sales ended in May have resulted in a decline of 1.0 percent. The story in March, the end of a financial quarter for several chains, wasn’t much different: March same store sales were down by 1.1 percent and traffic was down 3.4 percent.

Another report this spring from Pentallect, which was prepared for restaurant industry distributors and suppliers, shows that independent restaurants are projected to gain more sales than chains in years 2017 to 2020. Independent restaurants are projected to post sales growth of 4 to 5 percent for the three-year period while chain restaurants are projected to grow only 2 to 3 percent over the same period. Consumers may be showing a preference to independents based on key factors of preference and restaurant performance that diners value.

Independents have an advantage and are outperforming chains in the following key areas by more than 15 points: consumer orientation, a special feeling, personalized services, a sharing of values, food quality, good service, and innovative menus. In these categories rated by consumers in 2017 restaurant research conducted in partnership with the firm Critical Mix, independents outperformed chains by a spread of at least 15 points (see Figure A).

FIGURE A: Pentallect and Critical Mix


Are independents going to overtake chains and what are the key opportunities?

Are independents going to be the benefactors of the increasing sophistication of consumer preferences and their positive rating by consumers in several key areas of performance? Can independents outperform chains in the near future? It’s not necessarily clear. Chain restaurants tend to be better capitalized and have more strategic prowess behind them. However, it is apparent that over-expansion within concept types and within the chains themselves continue to be a problem.

Despite the strength and capitalization of chains, the number of chain restaurants did not increase in 2016, according to a report by NPD Foodservice, while independents restaurants decreased by 3 percent. Overall, the total number of restaurants actually decreased by 1 percent. In terms of shear unit growth, chains are still fair better than independent counterparts, but the story is not rosy.

Regarding chain sales, the TDn2K report shows that fine-dining is the best-performing segment, followed by quick-service. Fine-dining was “slightly positive” in same store sales in May, notes TDn2K, and the only segment to post positive same store sales.

A key finding of this report is that takeout sales were positive and clearly outperformed on-premise (in-house) dining sales. Takeout sales showed year-over-year comparable growth of 2.9 percent. Additionally, delivery, drive-thru and catering were also strong performers for chains.

Independents clearly have an opportunity to emulate some of the takeout and delivery programs being launched by chain operators. As consumers increasingly favor convenience, and benefit from lower food prices at grocery stores, offering diners convenience options can boost revenue growth for restaurateurs.

A 2017 report by AlixPartners indicated delivery as a key opportunity for restaurants based on consumer research and found that food quality and price were the key factors in consumers choosing delivery.


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