Skip navigation
restaurant-guests.gif Thomas Barwick/Stone/Getty Images Plus
Rapidly increasing average checks are likely keeping guests from visiting restaurants more frequently, contributing to the erosion of traffic growth even though sales growth is much stronger.

Restaurant guest check growth reaches record high in January while traffic slows

Black Box: The industry is on much more solid ground now than a year ago

A restaurant sales downturn that began in December continued into January. The industry posted negative sales growth for the first month since February of 2021. Sales growth was –0.9% in January, a drop of 2.9 percentage points compared to the December growth rate. Despite the disappointing results, the industry is better positioned from a sales perspective compared to over a year ago. Sales growth for the period between November 2020 and January 2021 averaged -15.9% as the industry contended with a new wave of COVID cases during that winter. Omicron may have caused a slowdown, but restaurants are in much more solid ground now when it comes to sales.

The industry continues to struggle with guest counts. Traffic growth was -15.6% in January, down 6.2 percentage points compared to December, and over twice the drop seen in sales growth. January’s traffic growth is not that different compared to the average -18.8% seen in November 2020 through January 2021. Rapidly increasing average checks are likely keeping guests from visiting restaurants more frequently, contributing to the erosion of traffic growth even though sales growth is much stronger. Check growth jumped in January, a new record high.

Guest sentiment around food improved during January; however, the longer-term view provided by the rolling three-month average indicates the percentage of positive reviews remains relatively unchanged year-over-year. Service sentiment has dropped by an average of 1.8 percentage points over the last three months compared to the same period a year ago. Intent-to-return positive sentiment, which dropped by over 5 percentage points during the same period, indicated an even larger decline. There is no doubt staffing and supply chain shortages have negatively impacted restaurant execution, and guests are noticing it.

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

Limited-service restaurants execute more consistently on burgers, full-service on desserts

During the last three months (November 2021 through January 2022), limited-service brands seem to have consistently executed burgers, chicken sandwiches, and tacos. In the case of burgers, there were 4.1 positive mentions in reviews for every negative mention of this menu item. Chicken sandwiches also received more positive mentions in reviews, but the ratio is smaller at 3.4 positive mentions for every negative mention. In the case of tacos, guests of limited-service brands were only about twice as likely to approve than disapprove of their order.

Food items that limited-service brands had a tougher time consistently executing were rice, guacamole and steak. All these menu items received a larger number of negative mentions than positive when tied to limited-service brands.

Not surprisingly, things are different for full-service restaurants.  Full-service brands consistently execute desserts, salmon and chicken wings. For desserts, full-service restaurants received almost seven positive mentions for every negative mention. From there, the ratio of positives drops considerably. Both salmon and chicken wings received slightly more than three positive mentions in reviews for every negative mention.

The food items that are trickier to execute by full-service brands are fries, eggs, bacon and pasta. All of these have fewer than 1.5 positive mentions for every negative mention.

Regional & market performance: Guest sentiment strong on East Coast

Out of the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the country, two dominated in terms of having the most positive restaurant net sentiment during January. Orlando was where guests expressed having the most positive net sentiment based on restaurant food and value during the month. It was Houston where restaurants obtained the strongest net sentiment based on their execution of service and ambiance, as well as the strongest intent to return. Detroit rounded out the list of the most positive markets, with the highest beverage sentiment during January.

On the opposite end of net sentiment, three markets struggled the most based on guest sentiment during the month. San Francisco had the lowest net sentiment based on restaurant food and service, Charlotte had the lowest scores for beverage and value, and Seattle was at the bottom of the list with the lowest ambiance and intent to return guest sentiment.

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.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.