Halloween may be a boon to retailers (especially in the candy, costume, and decor categories), but it’s never been an especially important occasion for restaurants, especially compared with other holidays like Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, and Easter. If anything, All Hallows Eve can hurt sales, depending on what day of the week it falls.
Data from Black Box Intelligence indicated that both sales and foot traffic dropped off in the week ending October 31, 2022, with casual and upscale-casual restaurants taking the brunt. It was a similar situation the previous year when comp sales hit their lowest mark since mid-August. Again, full-service concepts were the most impacted. Both times, Halloween fell on the weekend.
Covid, of course, should be factored into the equation. According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, October 2020 marked the beginning of an uptick in new cases that wouldn’t crest until January 2021. But it was a very different story in 2021, when the week of Halloween was part of an autumn trough in new cases between a small surge in early September and the largest peak to date in January 2022.
This discrepancy suggests the day of the week holds more power over business than the coronavirus. It also implies (though without hard numbers to back up this inference) the casual segment is most vulnerable because families who would typically visit on the weekends are instead taking their children out for trick or treating and/or other holiday-related activities. And while quick service didn’t experience a boost per se, its well-established takeout and delivery options make it a convenient option for a time-crunched evening.
With Halloween falling on a Monday this year, full-service operators might see a boost—or at the very least no change—in sales and foot traffic for the week of Halloween with unimpeded Saturday and Sunday evenings. Nevertheless, other factors—particularly the inflation elephant in the room—could still pose a challenge.
In a survey by consumer-sourced data firm Numerator, two out of five respondents expected inflation to affect their Halloween plans. Still it’s a comparatively mild impact. For eight other special occasions in 2022 (Super Bowl, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, and Labor Day), more than half of respondents said they would curtail their spending in the face of rising prices. Easter was the most prominent, with three out of four consumers expecting inflation to affect their spending.
Although the survey focused more on shopping than dining out, it did delve into how consumers plan to celebrate the holiday. The majority cited handing out candy, decorating their homes, and gathering with friends and family, but 15 percent indicated they planned to go out for food or drinks. What’s more, consumer interest in this activity stayed relatively the same (down two percentage points) compared to previous years. In contrast, activities like taking a haunted house tour, attending or hosting a party, and visiting a pumpkin patch were all down by double digits—and most dramatic of all, trick-or-treating dropped a whopping 15 percentage points.
Findings from research consultancy CGA paint a more optimistic picture for Halloween. Per a survey of 1,604 consumers within Florida, Texas, California, and New York, one out of three plan to visit a bar or restaurant to celebrate the occasion. Beverage-centric establishments are predicted to have a leg-up over traditional full-service restaurants, with the three most popular venues being neighborhood bars, sports bars, and nightclubs.
This enthusiasm for off-premises dining and drinking continues a trend that began in late September.
“Nearly a third of U.S. consumers visited the on-premises to celebrate Oktoberfest, so it’s no surprise to see a significant percentage are also planning to visit bars and restaurants for Halloween—with consumers continuing to prioritize the channel for social and special occasions,” CGA regional director Matthew Crompton said in a statement. “Across these types of events, it’s fundamental to understand the channels consumers will frequent, with restaurants proving popular for Oktoberfest, while in contrast, for Halloween, consumers are planning to visit nightclubs and neighborhood bars.”
Bars and bar-forward concepts can capitalize on this demand through themed LTOs. Clawson’s Weiss Distilling Co. in Michigan goes full tilt in this area, transforming its distillery into a “Halloweiss” speakeasy, with more than two dozen spooky-themed libations, complete with skull tiki glass carriers. In Denver, Deviation Distilling’s cocktail lounge not only serves themed drinks at this time of year, it also hosts a cocktail class to teach guests how to whip up their own libations.
On the food side, Eureka! introduced limited-time-only Scary Hot Fries (served with ghost pepper spice blend, cheeses, bacon, and chipotle aioli) and Chasing Ghosts cocktail (mezcal, coconut milk, orgeat almond syrup, and ghost pepper tincture). Other restaurants are creating kid-friendly specials to lure families; for example, Chuck E. Cheese has hosted a Halloween Boo-tacular throughout October with pumpkin-shaped pizza and Slime Cookies, as well as free games for kids in costume.
While it’s unlikely Halloween will ever rival St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, or Mother’s Day in terms of lucrative business, the holiday does provide operators with a chance to pilot special menu items and, at the very least, build brand affinity.