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December restaurant industry performance solidifies worst year since Great Recession

Two quantitative firms analyze sales, transaction results

December turned out to be one of the most disappointing months for the restaurant industry. According to Black Box Intelligence, a data-analytics firm, comp(arable) sales decreased by 13.3 percent. Comp traffic (transactions) plunged 18.6 percent, which is 3 percentage-points lower than the results in the previous month. Black Box notes that colder winter weather in many urban markets and a rise in COVID-19 cases have created a downward trend, which began in November, as per data compiled from 300 restaurant brands.

Although research firm The NPD Group tracks data differently—75 restaurant chains and non-comp metrics—it also pointed to the same basic trend in a separate December summary. The firm indicated that the restaurant industry ended 2021 with worst declines since the Great Recession. During December alone, transactions dropped by 10 percent.

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December’s 10-percent decline in consumer transactions is an improvement from April, which saw a 37-percent decline from last year, according to NPD Crest data. Full-service fared the worst and is most easily impacted by COVID-19 restrictions on dining capacity and closures. The segment posted a 70-percent drop in transactions in April, but improved to a 30-percent decrease in December.

Full-service restaurants (FSRs) have been able to pivot to doing more off-premises business for the sake of survival. Parking lots converted to curbside pickup zones and increased delivery, notes NPD, are ways that FSRs have been mitigating sales drops. FSRs have performed more poorly than quick-service (QSRs) in more-restrictive states, having dropped sales from last year by 60 to 70 percent. Meanwhile, in less-restrictive states, there is not much of a difference in performance between FSRs and QSRs.

QSR transactions saw their lowest point in April, with a decrease of 35 percent compared to a year earlier. As NPD’s reporting noted, this segment learned to accommodate a higher transaction volume by expanding drive-thru, delivery and pickup service; they ended up with a drop of only 8 percent in consumer transactions in December, compared to the same period a year earlier.

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Due to the pandemic, stay-at-home orders and consumer sentiment around safety and taking precautions, QSR business has benefited tremendously. The drive-thru, in particular, has become increasingly popular, with a number of limited-service restaurants incorporating these into their drive-thrus, including fast casuals. Fast-casual chains, like Chipotle and Pokeworks, for example, have drawn up more aggressive plans for the use of drive-thrus in newly-built stores.

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