This post is part of the On the Margin blog.
As expected, the year hasn’t started off all that hot, with declining restaurant traffic in January and February as consumers put the brakes on dining.
But who isn’t eating out, at least in the quick-service segment in January, might be a surprise: Heavy users.
According to the data research firm Sense360, which analyzed data from 140 chains and 5 million limited-service visits, 38 percent of heavy quick-service restaurant users reduced their visits in February, compared with the period before Christmas. Heavy category users visit 10 or more times per month.
Overall visits among this group fell by 20 percent.
Similarly, people who typically visit limited-service restaurants five to nine times per month reduced their usage by a total of 15 percent in February.
Light users, on the other hand, actually visited 13 percent more often during the month.
Overall, the number in visits to limited-service restaurants in February fell 3.1 percent.
Declines were broad-based, with relatively few markets in the country reporting increases in visits. Salt Lake City (down 8.7 percent) and Portland (down 7.6 percent) had the biggest declines.
But the declines were not broad-based when it comes to restaurant chains. Dairy Queen apparently had a spectacular month of February, with visits up 19.7 percent during the month.
This is a good time to remind folks that the weather in many parts of the country in February — and certainly in Dairy Queen’s home, Midwest markets — was unseasonably warm.
Second was Culver’s, a Wisconsin-based quick-service chain that also has heavy penetration in the Midwest and, yes, a large menu of frozen products.
Other chains where traffic grew last month, according to Sense360: Sonic, Zaxby’s, Jersey Mike’s, In-N-Out, Arby’s, KFC, McDonald’s and Subway.
At the bottom was Starbucks Corp., which might have been hurt by the weather. The chain has also been fighting political issues amid criticism from conservatives after Starbucks vowed to hire 10,000 refugees around the world. Sense360 said Starbucks visits fell 9.3 percent. Burger King, meanwhile, saw visits decline 3.7 percent.
Sense360 also said that Panera Bread and Taco Bell had traffic declines in February.
To be sure, if you visit a restaurant more often, you make more visits that can be cut back if times get difficult. As we’ve written before, consumers are feeling less enthusiastic about their finances these days, and it’s apparently leading the most frequent users to cut back on their restaurant visits.
Jonathan Maze, Nation’s Restaurant News senior financial editor, does not directly own stock or interest in a restaurant company.
Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze