The U.S. restaurant industry has shown remarkable resiliency, having lost as much as 35 percent of visits at the beginning of the pandemic, but it still has a ways to go to get back to pre-pandemic levels, according to The NPD Group. Total restaurant visits were down -6 percent in May 2021 compared to May 2019 but were up +23 percent from a year ago, recovering from a -23 percent decline in May 2020. The key to the industry’s recovery will be the strength of each daypart. Each daypart — morning meal, lunch, dinner, and P.M. Snack — will recover differently depending on the new rhythms of home, school, and work-life, according to NPD’s daily tracking of the U.S. foodservice industry.

Visits, online or physical, at morning meal, which includes the breakfast and A.M. Snack periods, were down -5 percent in May 2021 compared to May 2020, and for a pre-pandemic view, down -11 percent compared to same month two years ago. Since morning meal visits are habitual, recovery for this daypart will depend on consumers returning to workplaces and schools. Lunch traffic, which was down -4 percent this May compared to a year ago and -10% compared to two years ago, will depend on the return to offices and workplaces and more midday activities, like shopping. Visits at the dinner daypart were down -5% in May 2021 from a year ago and -12 percent from two years ago. The ability for restaurants, particularly full-service restaurants, to operate at total capacity, consumer comfort with dining in, and more business and recreational travel will aid recovery at the dinner daypart.

P.M. Snack, which has benefited from more flexible schedules blurring the dayparts and customers’ hesitancy to dine in, is the only daypart that has increased visits over the past year. Visits at P.M. Snack were up this May +8 percent compared to May 2019 and up +3 percent compared to two years ago. Since this daypart has increased traffic during the pandemic, operators will need to innovate their food and beverage offerings to grow traffic.         

“Across dayparts, the motivations for visiting restaurants are evolving, necessitating a refocus on how restaurant operators target consumers,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Quality, value, and innovation will always be relevant to the consumer, but we also need to recognize that in many ways the world has fundamentally changed.”

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