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From a sales perspective, November was exceptionally good for restaurants.

Black Box Intelligence: November brings strongest restaurant sales performance in over a decade

Moderate staffing improvements contribute to some lift in service-related sentiment

From a sales perspective, November was exceptionally good for restaurants. With sales larger by 8.3% than they were during the same month in 2019, this was the strongest performing month in over a decade for the restaurant industry. Still, despite the rapid growth in sales, restaurant traffic is far from recovering to its pre-pandemic levels.

The industry’s traffic growth improved 1.6% compared to October; nonetheless, it’s hard to find a silver lining with restaurant traffic at -4.7% for November. A contributing factor is undoubtedly the rapid increase in average checks in restaurants (along with overall inflation throughout the economy). Larger check averages are pushing sales higher but may be holding back incremental restaurant visits or orders.

By November of last year, restaurants were open for dine-in throughout most of the country. However, sales and traffic were much weaker than they are today, which meant less pressure on operations. As a result, there was a larger percentage of food mentions in online restaurant reviews (almost 7% more mentions were positive) a year ago, while the percentage of service mentions classified as positive was almost 8% higher.

Positive guest sentiment improved marginally month-over-month. There was a higher percentage of food-based reviews classified as positive during November compared to September and October. The percentage of service-centered reviews classified as positive also improved slightly in November, but the month still came in as the fourth worst year to date based on this metric. According to Black Box Workforce Intelligence™ data from October, restaurants were able to make moderate improvement in their staffing levels, thus contributing to better execution that potentially translated to positive sentiment.

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

Thanksgiving week fuels optimism for a return to a “normal” holiday season

Restaurant sales growth was strong during the week of Thanksgiving. Same-store sales grew by 6.2% from the comparable week in 2019. The results for the preceding week were much stronger. Still, these strong results are largely fueled by the unusually high growth in average guest check.

To eliminate the distorting effect of rising checks, analyzing only November’s results this year is much more telling in terms of the health of holiday spending. The data showed that the regular spending patterns across segments have returned, as consumers strive to enjoy the holiday season after the disruption caused by the pandemic last year.

As was the case in 2019, both the family-dining and fine-dining segments experienced a percentage jump in the double-digits in their average weekly sales during the week of Thanksgiving compared to the average for the first three weeks in November. Meanwhile, casual dining and quick service experienced a double-digit decline in their average weekly sales that week, same as they did in 2019. Both segments experienced a smaller decline in sales during the week than they did two years ago. The only notable exception was fast casual, which typically has big declines in average sales during the holiday week but had flat sales compared to previous weeks this year.

Holidays create additional challenges to execution and Thanksgiving brought additional challenges due to the staffing shortage. Guest sentiment eroded in key areas for segments that usually experience the biggest incremental sales during the holiday week. The fine dining segment posted almost 20% more in sales while experiencing the biggest decline in ‘food’ sentiment during the week. ‘Service’ and ‘ambiance’ guest sentiment dropped the most in family dining, driven exclusively by a decline in the percentage of positive mentions on those topics.

For the quick-service segment, average sales usually drop considerably during Thanksgiving week. Despite the decrease in sales, the segment’s net sentiment for ‘food,’ ‘service’ and ‘ambiance’ fell sharply compared to the previous week. In this case, pressures from decreased staffing and guest orders could be to blame.

*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

For the first time in years, out of the top 25 markets in the country, Orlando dominated all attributes of the restaurant experience. Guests in Orlando had the most positive net sentiment based on restaurant ‘food,’ ‘beverage,’ ‘service,’ ‘ambiance’ and ‘value’ during November. They also expressed the highest ‘intent on return’ sentiment.

Behind Orlando, other markets with the highest ‘food’ sentiment were New York, Philadelphia and Tampa. New York was also the market with the second-highest service sentiment, again followed by Tampa and Philadelphia.

On the other hand, guests in North Carolina were the least positive about their restaurant experiences during November. Raleigh had the lowest net sentiment based on restaurant ‘ambiance,’ ‘value’ and ‘intent on return.’ Guests in Charlotte expressed the lowest sentiment based on restaurant ‘beverages.’

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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