The U.S restaurant industry ended 2021 better off than the year began, even after facing a host of headwinds in 2021, the continuing pandemic, labor shortages, rising costs, to name a few. Restaurant online and physical visits increased by 9% in the year ending December 2021 compared to the 12% decline in the year ending December 2020, reports The NPD Group. Although traffic is still down 4% compared to the pre-pandemic year ending December 2019, the restaurant industry is making some headway against the headwinds.

Chains vs. Independents/Midsize/Small Chains

Major restaurant chains, which hold the largest traffic share at 77%, grew online and physical visits by 7% in the year ending December 2021 compared to the same period a year ago, which is a 2% decline from 12 months ending December 2019. Independent restaurants and smaller chains, making up the remainder of visit share, increased online and physical traffic by 12% and 13%, respectively, in 2021 over a year ago. Both independents and smaller chains are down 9% from 2019, according to NPD’s continual tracking of the U.S. foodservice industry. 

Quick Service vs. Full Service Restaurants

Quick service restaurant online and physical visits, representing 82% of all restaurant orders in 2021, increased by 7% in the year ending December 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, and traffic was down 1% compared to the year ending December 2019. Full-service restaurant visits, representing 18% of restaurant industry orders, grew by 18% last year, over a 29% decline ending December 2020 and 16% below traffic in the year ending December 2019.

Delivery, Drive-thru, Carry-out, Digital Ordering

Restaurant delivery, which grew by triple digits over the past two years, increased visits by 17% in the year ending December 2021 over an 89% gain in the 2020 12-month period. Despite substantial growth since the pandemic, delivery represents the smallest traffic share of off-premises modes at 11%. Drive-thru, which increased visits by 4% year-over-year, holds the largest share at 52%. Carry-out represented 37% of orders, which grew by 2% in the year ending December 2021 over last year. Digital orders placed through an app or website increased by 13% last year compared to a 100% increase in 2020, and non-digital orders grew by 8% in 2021 over a 19% decline in 2020.

“Restaurant recovery continues on a year-over-year basis, especially compared to last year,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “The industry’s recovery isn’t going to be a straight line moving upward based on the nearly two years of the pandemic so far; it’s going to be bumpy. That said, restaurant traffic should recover 98% of 2019 visits by the end of 2022.”

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