Geography matters when it comes to pandemic recovery for U.S. restaurant chains. A mix of factors, like pandemic-related restaurant restrictions being lifted, the closing or opening of units, a performance, a restaurant segment’s performance, even the weather or an event, can impact restaurant chain customer transactions in a specific market area, reports The NPD Group.

For example, restaurant chain customer transaction declines in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) designated market area improved from double-digit declines last year to -4 percent in May 2021 compared to May 2019, a pre-pandemic basis of comparison. DFW ranks in the top 10 markets to recover from the steep customer transaction declines caused by the pandemic last year. In addition to Texas lifting COVID restaurant restrictions in March, the market’s May customer transactions reflect new restaurant units opening and a +10 percent increase in fast casual chain transactions compared to a year ago, according to NPD’s CREST Performance Alerts, which provides a quick weekly view of chain-specific transactions and share trends for 75 quick service, fast casual, midscale, and casual dining chains. 

In addition to the DFW market, other top market areas showing improvements in restaurant chain customer transaction declines in May are Atlanta, GA.; Birmingham, Alabama; Salt Lake City; and Orlando, Florida. All these markets are in areas where restaurant restrictions had been eased or lifted as of May, and fast casual chain customer transactions grew.

The recent increases in fast casual chain restaurant transactions were an improvement from the beginning of the pandemic when fast casual restaurants didn’t do as well as traditional quick service restaurants. Traditional quick service restaurants were well-equipped before the pandemic to handle off-premises operations, like carry-out, delivery, and drive-thru. Most fast casual chains, which relied more heavily on dine-in and didn’t have drive-thru operations, were not. As fast casual chains quickly pivoted to focus on off-premises operations and restrictions were eased, their situation improved. In May 2021, total U.S. fast casual chain customer transactions increased by +2 percent compared to May 2019, and customer transactions grew over the May 2019 levels in 30 of the top 50 markets. Total U.S. restaurant chain customer transactions across all segments declined by -9 percent in May 2021 compared to May 2019.

“I often get the question, when will the U.S. restaurant industry improve, and part of the answer is one market at a time,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “My advice to restaurant operators, foodservice distributors, and manufacturers is to have a national view but act locally.”    

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