U.S. fast casual restaurants didn’t fare as well as traditional quick service restaurants early in the pandemic, but their customers are returning, reports The NPD Group. Online and physical visits to fast casual restaurants in the year ending August 2021 were up +8 percent compared to a year ago, which keeps traffic on par or flat to pre-pandemic visits in August 2019. In the quarter ending June 2020, at the height of pandemic lockdowns and restaurant restrictions, fast casual visits were down -23 percent compared to the prior year, according to NPD’s daily tracking of the U.S. restaurant industry.

Generally, fast casual restaurants lacked the drive-thru capabilities and off-premises operational efficiencies of traditional quick service restaurants early in the pandemic. However, fast casual chains that had a solid off-premises business before the pandemic grew traffic and traffic share during this time. Since the early months of the pandemic, those fast-casual restaurants that saw declines early in the pandemic have put more focus on their off-premises operations and have plans to add or expand drive-thru operations.  As a result of these and other efforts, fast casual off-premises orders in the year ending August 2021 increased by +30 percent over a year ago. Within fast casual, off-premises traffic went from being just over half of its traffic pre-pandemic to over 80 percent of traffic in the year ending August 2021.

“Fast casual restaurants have capitalized on the lessons they learned during the pandemic,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Their customers are happy to return because so many fast casual restaurants have built a strong clientele based on their innovation and ability to deliver a quality customer experience.”

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