In a year when the restaurant industry experienced its steepest traffic declines in three decades, the total restaurant unit count was relatively flat, dipping slightly by -0.3 percent or less, 1,652 restaurant units nationwide, compared to a year ago, according to a restaurant census conducted in fall 2009 by The NPD Group, a leading market research company.

NPD’s latest ReCount, a census of commercial restaurant locations in the United States conducted in the spring and fall each year, shows unit counts for total chain restaurants flat and independent unit counts down -1 percent in fall 2009 compared to fall 2008. Unit counts for total chain quick-service restaurants remained stable while independent quick-service restaurant units declined -2 percent. Full service restaurants (casual dining, midscale, and fine dining) counts were flat for both total chain and independents.

Looking deeper, however, mid-sized and minor chains are showing declines across the board while major chains are growing slightly in both segments.

“NPD’s fall 2009 ReCount reflects a slowdown in chains expanding, and two years of a challenging economy already weeding out the poorest performing restaurants,” says Greg Starzynski, director of product development-foodservice at NPD. “The economy has been particularly hard on independent restaurants and smaller regional chains that don’t have the same financial resources as the national chains.”

In terms of restaurant unit counts by geography*, NPD finds that the Central United States Census Bureau Region was hardest hit and decreased its total restaurant units by -1.2 percent, including states like Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois. The Northeast census region also saw decreases of -0.6 percent for total restaurant units.

*Editor’s note: ReCount restaurant counts are available by a variety of breakdowns, including geographical breakdowns, e.g., zip code, city, state, designated market area, census areas, etc.