Two customers in a coffee shop.
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While quick-serves have held steadiest, full-service chains are adjusting.

Some Good News for Restaurant Sales, But an Uneven Path Ahead

Chain transaction declines have improved into the single-digits for the first time since March.

The restaurant industry remains in a holding pattern, with no end in sight. And it’s troubling consumers. In a recent nationwide survey commissioned by the National Restaurant Association, 89 percent of adults said they were concerned businesses in their community, like restaurants, would not survive the economic fallout of COVID-19. More than half of those same people (56 percent) said they were aware of a local restaurant that permanently closed.

Stark reality continues to clash with demand. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said restaurants are an important part of their communities, and 78 percent agreed going out to their favorite spots was one of the things they missed most since COVID-19’s onset.

In terms of closures, the Association’s survey brought some anecdotal rumblings to the surface. Sixty-four percent of urban residents noted they’ve witnessed permanent closures in their hometowns. It’s 56 percent on the suburban level. For rural residents, the number declines to 44 percent.

Yet at this uncertainty stirs, restaurants are fighting out of the trough. The NPD Group shared with FSR that in the week ending August 16, customer transaction declines at major restaurant chains improved into the single-digits after 21 weeks of double-digit declines. That’s one of the more positive results to emerge since the foundation crumbled in April.

Customer transactions declined 9 percent compared to year-ago levels—a full 35 points better than the steepest decline of negative 44 percent in the week ending April 12.

To note, NPD measures trends from 75 quick service, fast casual, midscale, and casual-dining chains representing 53 percent of the commercial restaurant traffic in the U.S.

Once more, quick-service brands—which represent the bulk of industry transactions—outpaced the pack. They dropped 8 percent, year-over-year, in the week ending August 16. Full-service chains reported declines of 19 percent compared to last year. As steep as that seems, it’s a 57-point gain from April 12’s plummet of negative 76 percent.

“Although transactions are still down, the move into the single-digits is a positive sign for the U.S. restaurant industry,” David Portalatin, NPD food industry adviser and author of Eating Patterns in America, said in a statement. “Although we’re stuck in neutral for now, I firmly believe there is still a lot of upside recovery for restaurants. My belief is rooted in one reality: consumers are not willing to give up on the convenience and experience a restaurant meal brings to them and their families regardless of the barriers.”

Looking back on July, trends worked against an environment in which about 20 percent of commercial restaurant units were under restrictions for on-premises dining during the course of the month. Restriction levels were actually higher at the end of the month than they were at the beginning, which illustrates one of the more complicated COVID-19 byproducts—the fact restaurants really can’t pinpoint a recovery target with anything close to accuracy.

And, as was the case in many cities and markets over the past couple of months (California, for one), this is a conversation that can move backward before it makes any progress. The question is, when will it make progress?

One example: On August 19, the NYC Hospitality Alliance, along with restaurant owners from all five boroughs, held a press conference calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to develop and implement an immediate plan for the return of indoor dining.

To that point, the Big Apple was more than six weeks removed from indoor dining getting an indefinite pause from officials. Meanwhile, reopening plans for schools, museums, gyms, and bowling alleys were announced, the Alliance said. “… restaurant and bar owners are desperate for answers and action from the government,” it explained.

NYC restaurants and bars anticipated that indoor could resume at 50 percent capacity under phase three of reopening on July 6. However, restaurants elsewhere in the state have served customers indoor since June 17, and during this time, New York’s coronavirus infection rate dropped to .071 percent, the Alliance said.

This uncertainty is leaving NYC operators counting down to disaster, it added. “With feasibility and demand for outdoor dining during the cold winter months expected to be tenuous, insiders are predicting a death knell for the industry if indoor dining does not resume by mid-September.”

The Alliance surveyed nearly 500 restaurant and bar owners and found that 83 percent could not pay full commercial rent in July.

“Despite the fact that the City exceeds and sustains the metrics that have allowed restaurants throughout the rest of the state to reopen, government leaders have still yet to provide any guidance on when small business owners, workers and customers can expect indoor dining to return,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, in a statement. “Our industry’s survival over the next several months depends on government immediately developing and implementing a plan that allows restaurants in New York City to safely reopen indoors like our counterparts everywhere else in the state.”

Added George Constantinou, owner of Bogota Latin Bistro, Miti Miti and Medusa in Brooklyn: “Fifty percent capacity is 50 percent capacity. Location shouldn’t make any difference on whether you can appropriately social-distance at 50-seat restaurant. If you can do it in Westchester, then we can most certainly do it safely in Brooklyn as well.”

In addition to a plan for indoor dining, the Alliance continues to urge for sweeping relief, from extending the moratorium on evictions, suspension of personal liability guarantees in leases, pausing commercial rent taxes, providing rent relief, and extending small businesses cash grants.

Per NPD, consumer visits to commercial restaurants declined 12 percent in July versus 2019. That broke down as negative 9 percent at quick-service units and negative 32 percent for sit-down chains.

Whether by segment or region or access to capital versus independents, COVID-19 is leaving a of a bevy of divergence in its wake.

And here’s a glimpse into how much the landscape has shifted, and why some brands are riding the “new normal” to record sales levels, like Papa John’s. The percent of traffic sourced to digital increased from 5 percent in January 2020 (pre-virus) to 13 percent in July, and held steady versus June. Delivery in the month of July made up 6 percent of traffic versus 3 percent in January.

In an arena where total industry traffic fell 12 percent, once again traffic levels more than doubled at the digital occasion versus last year and almost doubled at the delivery occasion.

In July, on-premises accounted for 13 percent of visits (versus 5 percent in April). At the start of the year, before the pandemic, it accounted for 33 percent of visits.

Black Box Intelligence reported, in its week ending August 20 update, quick-service chains continue to post double-digit percentage growth in average guest checks. Fast casual has also seen “checks rise at an unusually high rate,” it said.

The mid-afternoon daypart experienced flat or positive comp sales growth during six of the last eight weeks. Late-night, though, continues to lose the most sales, year-over-year.

The best performing states based on restaurant comp sales during the week were: Mississippi, Alabama, Utah, Louisiana, South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Idaho, and North Carolina.

The worst were: Alaska, New Mexico, California, New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, Washington, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.

In Revenue Management Solutions’ latest weekly traffic and sales figure, some promising news surfaced as well. For the week ending August 8, traffic improved to the best level since mid-March, trending at negative 10–15 percent, year-over-year.

In quick service, traffic moved between negative 10–15 percent, while sales are flat to 5 percent. Drive thru remains the heavy lifter, with traffic through the channel up 15–20 percent versus 2019 levels and sales up 35–40 percent.

Dine-in year-over-year traffic and sales are still pressed—down 65–70 percent.

For full service, traffic and sales pushed negative in the 30–35 percent range, RMS said. Delivery and to-go meals continue to hover around the 100 percent comparable growth figure, year-over-year.

Dine-in traffic and sales improved slightly over last week to negative 50 and 55 percent, respectively.

RMS provided some interesting daypart information, too. Dinner began outperforming lunch in the middle of June and continues to do so in July and August. Year-over-year traffic is slowly and consistently improving after a dip in July-down just 5 percent compared to declines of 10 percent back in June. Sales are up 10 percent versus 2019.

Lunch year-over-year traffic also boosted a bit from negative 10 percent in June to negative 8 percent in August. Lunch sales are now growing at 5–8 percent, in line with July results.

Breakfast metrics lifted from July, with traffic running negative 18 percent, year-over-year, and sales at negative 5 percent.

Late-night, as noted, represented the biggest drag. Traffic for the segment improved about 5 percentage points from a low in late July, yet is still down 18 percent, year-over-year. Sales are sliding 5–10 percent.