Much of March’s restaurant data was difficult to put into perspective. It split between pre- and post-pandemic levels, with most agreeing March 11 was the trigger for the downfall.

Even so, states shut dining rooms at staggered rates and some brands preempted regulations by closing anyway. Others waited until they couldn’t any longer.

April was a different story. Black Box Intelligence Friday released its restaurant snapshot for the month, and it looked unlike anything the insights company has shared since it started tracking sales and traffic around the Great Recession.

Same-store sales for restaurants dropped 55 percent during the month, with traffic plunging the same amount. Black Box said simply, it was “something unheard of for the industry in many decades.”

While alarming, the positive take is restaurants appear to have left the bottom behind in March. During the last two weeks of the month, restaurants lost 67 percent of their sales, year-over-year, Black Box said. Since, the decline has improved by 20 percentage points. By the last two weeks of April, the rate slowed to 47 percent, year-over-year.

“Obviously, we are still far from an ideal situation for the industry,” said Kelli Valade, CEO and president of Black Box Intelligence, in a statement. “But the improvement in recent weeks is a testament to the resourcefulness and grit of restaurant operators who adapted and shifted quickly to this new restricted environment and have begun to turn things around.”

There are multiple factors propelling the figure. To Valade’s comment, many restaurants are figuring out pandemic life, at least relative to where they were just a few weeks ago. Texas Roadhouse, for example, has watched its to-go business skyrocket 575 percent. In January, the steakhouse chain was taking in $8,400 per week, per restaurant in off-premises sales. By the last seven days of April, it was $56,432. A shorter window: In the week ending March 3 it was $9,115.

Outback Steakhouse was pulling in weekly off-premises sales of $12,674 at the start of March. This past week, it was up to $39,648.

Restaurants are getting more efficient. They’re adding additional channels, like curbside. And there’s also an element, especially in the case of full-serves, of building from scratch. So loyal customers are making up much of this off-premises growth, which really wasn’t the target customer before when casual chains turned to delivery for incremental dollars.

There’s also been a sense among operators lately that customers are growing weary of quarantine life. They’re tired of cooking at home. And this has given rise to family meals and bundles that are priced affordable and, in many cases, promoted with incentives via digital to encourage trial. Families are sending one person to pick up food for multiple people, and restaurants are responding. Stimulus checks appeared to give restaurants a boost, too.

In total, the landscape has carried a more optimistic tune in the past couple of weeks that it did at the start of April. Off-premises comp sales topped 200 percent in April, Black box said. For comparison, full-service restaurants typically report less than 15 percent of their sales outside the four walls. It was common pre-pandemic for off-premises to represent more than half of limited-service chain’s total sales (fast casual included). Yet even those brands are seeing to-go, delivery, and drive thru grow at a pace nearing 25 percent, year-over-year, Black Box said.

“As bad as the results were in April, the latest Black Box Intelligence data suggests that the worst of the sales decline is behind us and we are now starting the long road towards recovery,” said Victor Fernandez, vice president of insights and knowledge for the company.

As you’d expect, brands that traditionally conduct a significant portion of their business through off-premises sales and have the lowest price points are meeting current challenges best.

By the last week of April, quick-service same-store sales were down less than 2 percent year-over-year. Fast casual—a segment that does not, by and large, rely on the drive thru—witnessed sales declines of 30 percent by the last week of the month. That’s still a recovery of 20 percentage points from where they were at the close of March.

Restaurants with heavy dine-in business remain on the other side of the spectrum. By the last week of April, full-service brands still reported lost sales of 62 percent, year-over-year. While better than the 77 percent decline seen toward the end of March, it’s plenty problematic, Black Box said.

Within the full-service sector, fine dining and family dining have taken the biggest blows. Their improvement over the last month is much smaller compared with the rest of the industry and they continue to see sales loss in the 75–85 percent range in recent weeks, according to Black Box.

But could that change soon? The company’s “Restaurant Recovery Sales Flash,” showed in Texas on May 2 (the second day restaurant dining rooms were allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity), same-store sales for full-service restaurants declined 36 percent—a nearly 30 percent jump over the national level. Additionally, data from Texas and Georgia (both allowing dining rooms to be open in some capacity May 1), revealed that, on average, full-service restaurant operators only opened dining rooms in about 40 percent of their locations in Texas and 31 percent of them in Georgia.

Outback shared a story recently that it opened 23 locations for a week and watched comps decline 17 percent, year-over-year—a massive improvement. The chain’s same-store sales sank 60 percent or more for three straight weeks from March 22 to April 25. What that proves is that dining-room business, even under very limited restrictions, has the potential to provide a serious boon for brands that have also grown their off-premises business during COVID-19.

How it will affect concepts going from zero to 25 percent, however, is another story. This affects a great deal of fine-dining brands who typically operate under tighter margins and with larger staffs and food costs. Also, they weren’t generating meaningful off-premises business before and weren’t equipped to change that. Will 25 percent dine-in capacity be worth it in that case? This next couple of weeks will shed a lot of light.

And there are other chains that will simply decide to keep the off-premises conversation flowing and wait a bit longer, like The Cheesecake Factory, which said it will only reopen when it can do so at 50 percent. There are still a lot of variables ahead for the industry. What will the customer feedback be from these limited reopenings? Will there be cases of COVID-19 tied to specific restaurants? We just don’t know yet.

“The unemployment rate remains on target to reach the 20 percent range,” said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors and Black Box Intelligence economist. “But businesses are starting to reopen, though slowly and extremely unevenly. There doesn’t seem to be a uniform plan that states and localities are following to determine what should be opened and when. That means the process of reopening the economy will not be smooth and is likely to take many months.”

There are also two critical factors that we know little about,” he added. “The first is how consumers and workers will react to having businesses open. Will they be willing to go to stores, restaurants and workplaces? If not, how long and what will it take to get them comfortable again? The second, and maybe even more critical question is what will happen if there is an uptick in new cases and deaths. The extent of any resurgence will determine whether a new lockdown is required. If that happens, the implications are dire as much of what was accomplished by the social distancing and government support programs would be wiped out. Until we have better answers to these questions, the course of the economy after the initial recovery will remain unclear.”

Fernandez said data suggests full-serves need dining rooms to reopen to recover.

“Even fast casual brands, with almost half of their sales typically coming from dine-in sales, could use the boost from guests being allowed to dine in again,” he said. “However, there are many questions related to states easing up restrictions. Among them, are restaurants going to reopen immediately if the capacity limitations are severe and are guests going to return immediately?”

As restaurants shifted to off-premises-only models in recent weeks, limited-service concepts began to capture a bigger percentage of overall restaurant sales. While spending per guest decreased year-over-year for full-service brands—likely due to lost beverage sales and customers skipping pricier items—the opposite was true for quick-serves.

Quick-service chains saw average checks grow by almost 20 percent, year-over-year, during the last two weeks of April. For fast casual, it was up 16 percent. This goes back to the bundle idea. People order more when they do order. It’s not all that different from what’s happening when customers brave the grocery store. Even for one meal, a single order is covering a whole group in many cases. Additionally, there are very few solo occasions left in the COVID-19 spending environment. Work routines getting disrupted took care of that.

All 196 of the markets tracked by Black Box reported negative in April. New England was the weakest region with sales and traffic declines of 63.38 and 63.91 percent, respectively. The Southeast topped with negative sales of 43.29 percent and a traffic drop of 45.38 percent.

Black Box added that allowing restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages for off-premises consumption, as several states have, produced very miniscule impact on lost beverage sales. Comp beverage sales for casual dining in Texas, Nebraska, Arizona, Connecticut, and California were all within negative 92–94 percent for the week. Although better than the negative 98 percent national beverage sales growth rate for casual dining, it’s marginal improvement.

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