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The biggest downturn in restaurant sales growth occurred in last two weeks of December.

Black Box: Sales and traffic aren’t the only challenges for restaurants as guest sentiment takes a hit in December

Softening numbers could be due to omicron concerns, staffing difficulties

December was a disappointing month for restaurants, with sales growth of 4.1%*, compared to 8.4% in November. It was the weakest month for the industry since the 2.7% sales growth reported in March 2021. The biggest downturn in sales growth occurred in last two weeks of December. Restaurant traffic also declined, although it held up a little better than sales. Traffic growth in December was -8.4%, down from -4.6% the previous month.

A significant portion of this sales and traffic growth decline can be attributed to the end-of-year holidays falling during the weekend, which erased some potentially strong weekend sales at the end of 2021. The data also suggests other factors are at play behind the latest sales stumble, such as concerns about the omicron variant of COVID-19 or consumer pullback in response to historically high inflation rates and skyrocketing restaurant guest checks.

In addition to sales and traffic softening in December, restaurants also faced difficulties satisfying their guests. The number of guests that mentioned restaurants being “short-staffed” or “understaffed” increased in the second week of December and climbed to record-high levels by the end of the year.

The percentage of online restaurant reviews about ‘food’ classified as positive was essentially flat year-over-year. December was also the third-worst month of 2021 based on percentage of positive ‘food’ mentions. The only months with a smaller percentage of positive ‘food’ mentions were January and February, when the industry was still undergoing a slump due to the winter COVID wave.

Similarly, and not surprisingly given the record-high number of “understaffed” mentions, the percentage of ‘service’-centered restaurant reviews classified as positive dropped 3.4% year-over-year in December. This month also had the lowest percentage of positive ‘service’ mentions through all of 2021.

*Financial metrics are “same-store” metrics & reported on a 2-year comparison unless otherwise noted

Top performing limited-service brands are better at ‘service,’ while full-service brands excelled on ‘food’ and ‘beverage’

Overall sales growth softened in Q4, but top-performing brands continued posting impressive results during the quarter. Limited-service restaurant companies classified in the top quartile based on sales performance achieved sales growth that was almost 14% better than the median growth for that segment of the industry. For top quartile brands in full-service, sales growth was 11% better than the benchmark.

So, what set these brands apart? What differentiated those top performers most about the experience they provided their guests during the quarter? What did their guests say most set those brands apart from the rest of their competitors? The answer varies by restaurant service style.

In limited-service, top performing restaurants tended to have higher ‘service’ net sentiment* than the rest. Still, the difference in sentiment was only 1.3%. Net sentiment ‘service’ scores for top performers and for the rest were low for both sets of companies, highlighting the service challenges all limited-service brands are going through.

For full-service restaurants the story is quite different.

  1. Top performing full-service restaurants were able to drive bigger net sentiment differentials across most attributes of the restaurant experience compared to the rest of full-service. The only exception was ‘value’ sentiment, which was much closer between top performers and the rest.
  2. The attributes that the top performers most excelled in were ‘food’ and ‘beverage’. Top quartile full-service companies had 16% better food sentiment and 14% better beverage sentiment than the median company in Q4.

Notwithstanding the many challenges facing the industry, these top performing restaurants were able to deliver a markedly superior ‘food’, ‘beverage’, ‘service’ and ‘ambiance’ experience to their guests.

**Net sentiment: a value representing the percentage of positive mentions minus the percentage of negative mentions for a specific attribute of the restaurant experience.

Regional & market performance: East Coast sees strongest sentiment performance

The markets with the highest restaurant guest sentiment during December were Orlando, New York and Philadelphia. Out of the 25 largest markets in the country, the designated market area with the highest restaurant net sentiment based on ‘food’, ‘beverage’ and ‘ambiance’ was Orlando. The market with the highest ‘service’ and ‘value’ net sentiment was New York, while Philadelphia topped the list for restaurant intent to return.

San Francisco has been facing some challenges in recent months, and the trend continued in December. This market has the lowest net sentiment during the month based on restaurant ‘food’ and ‘service.’ Raleigh also tends to have lower restaurant sentiment and was the market with the lowest ‘beverage’ and ‘value’ sentiment.

Looking ahead

Our hypothesis at the end of 2021 was that guests would hold on to their restaurant spending throughout the holiday season and unleash that pent up demand for those celebrations they had to skip a year ago due to the pandemic. But our belief has been that once the holidays were behind us, the underlying conditions would catch up with consumers and we would likely see a slowdown in restaurant spending.

The rapidly rising prices throughout the economy and specifically, the historically high menu price increases have both eaten into the purchasing power of consumers and some cutback in restaurant spending is to be expected as a result. Additionally, COVID is still a concern, especially in January as omicron-fueled cases are expected to peak. The expectation is for a softening in restaurant sales during January and probably in months ahead as well.

The Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot™ (RGSS) is produced by data from Black Box Guest Intelligence™. Guest Intelligence is tracking over 190 brands to benchmark customer satisfaction and is the only online tool that integrates with operational performance data to validate the impact on financial performance. The data set focuses on six key attributes of the restaurant industry experience: food, service, ambiance, beverage, value and intent to return.

The RGSS algorithm determines the highest-ranking brands based on sentiment. Brands included in this monthly snapshot must have a total of at least 250 mentions for the month. Restaurants must have a minimum number of units to be eligible as well. DMA rankings consider only the largest 25 areas.

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