Figures are still $1.3 billion below February 2020. 

Food and drink places earned $64.9 billion in April, the highest sales month since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

After a slight decrease from January to February, sales figures have now increased for three straight months. April’s numbers are roughly $14 billion higher than December’s totals. The industry has come a long way from the beginning of the pandemic last year, when sales fell to $46.1 billion in March 2020 and a pandemic-low of $29.9 billion in April 2020. 

According to Black Box Intelligence, the week ending May 2 was the seventh straight week of positive two-year comp sales growth for the restaurant industry. The best-performing regions were the West, Southwest, Texas, and Southeast. Black Box said most of the strength comes from growth in average check per transaction as opposed to traffic, which hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels yet. Some chains are even setting records. For instance, Applebee’s believes it achieved two of its highest-volume months ever in March and April, even though the database only goes back 13 years. Another positive sign is that Q1 saw 18,217 restaurant and food openings, which was  5 percent better than Q1 2020 and only 4 percent below Q1 2019. 

Although much progress has been made, April’s figures are still $1.3 billion, or 2 percent, lower than the $66.2 billion earned in February 2020. Between March 2020 and April 2021, total restaurant and foodservice sales were down $290 billion from expected levels, according to the National Restaurant Association.

In a national survey of 2,500 restaurant operators from April 1 to April 14, the Association found that roughly 90,000 eating and drinking places are completely closed either permanently or long-term. In addition, for most restaurateurs, profitability is down from pre-COVID marks and costs are greater. Around 65 percent of respondents said their sales volume in March 2021 were lower compared to pre-pandemic figures. Only 44 percent of operators expect average sales from April to June to be higher than March 2021.

Even for restaurants that are experiencing high sales, the labor shortage remains a big issue. Around 84 percent of survey respondents said current staffing is lower than pre-pandemic levels, and 90 percent said recruiting and retaining employees will likely be more difficult after the pandemic is over than it was before it began. Because of this, more than half of full-service operators and 42 percent of quick-service operators said they are unable to open at maximum-allowed capacity, the Association revealed. In a survey of more than 360 operators, Black Box found that nearly 60 percent of respondents blame enhanced unemployment benefits for the labor shortage. And the governments have taken notice. President Joe Biden announced that workers must accept suitable job offers or lose unemployment, and at least 16 states will end the boosted benefits prior to the September 6 expiration date. 

Food and drink places added 187,000 jobs in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 10.64 million were on payroll, which is still down 1.65 million from February 2020.

Casual Dining, Consumer Trends, Feature