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An open letter to restaurant consumers

September Restaurant Industry Snapshot shows negative sales, traffic, and one former restaurant CEO wants to know why

Editor's note: This exclusive series to Nation’s Restaurant News provides C-level insights into the sales and traffic data from clients subscribing to Black Box Intelligence, a financial performance benchmarking company. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Nation’s Restaurant News.

Dear restaurant consumer,

I’m an ex-CEO in the restaurant business. Many of my friends in the industry would love to talk to you directly but can’t. They are frustrated that you are not showing us your love and presence the way you have in the past.

These are sensitive people; they care about you. Okay — they also care about their 13 million employees, their investors and their bonus as well.

Sales and traffic chartIn the month of September and the third quarter we missed you. Your absence was proven by the results of the most recent Restaurant Industry Snapshot from Black Box Intelligence.

Same-store sales and traffic for the month of September declined 0.8 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively. For the third quarter, same-store sales rose 0.3 percent and traffic fell 1.7 percent. Up slightly on the quarter, but those Wall Street guys are not going to be happy, but I will remind them that the same-store sales last year for the third quarter rose just 0.4 percent. Maybe you should refresh yourself on all of the to-go and delivery opportunities we offer.

Food and alcohol graphYou did show positive spending in 66 out of the 172 DMAs we track for September. But that means in your markets, two-thirds of you didn’t dine out as much this year compared to last year. Overall, you bought less food and alcohol beverages than last year. Now, I’m on a diet myself — but less alcohol?

Those of you living in California went out more than people in the other regions, registering an increase of 1 percent in same-store sales and a decline of 1.6 percent in visits. But what happened in the Mid Atlantic, the home of so many of you on some form of income associated with our government? Operators in that region posted a 3.7-percent decline in same-store sales and a 4.6-percent decline in traffic. Maybe the BBI secret correlation for this one should be distance from Washington, D.C., equals positive momentum.

Best and worst regions chartOur partners at Consumer Edge ask 2,500 of you each month about your willingness to spend in our restaurants, and you have been accurate in predicting whether same-store sales would rise or fall the following month for 27 out of 30 months. It appears you are making your dining decisions based on how you feel each month or week. We want you to feel good.

It seems that if you have a $100,000+ household income you are confident and continue to spend in our restaurants. However, if you are in the middle-income bracket of $50,000 to $100,000, or below $50,000, you are definitely feeling the pain of high gas prices and chronic underemployment.

We feel your pain, and we are giving you lots of incentives to dine with us in the form of discounts, loyalty programs and entertaining advertising on your favorite TV shows. We are remodeling in so many restaurants, so we would like you to come see our new look. We know you have high expectations of our food and service, and we are working to improve both.

Consumer willingness to spend index

Even though you have this nice kitchen at home, we know you don't always want to cook. Grocery prices are going up as well, so don’t be fooled by what your grocer is offering to take you away from us. And we have online and mobile ordering in most places now if you choose not to enjoy dining in our dining rooms or bar.

We do love you and miss you, and it hurts us to see you visit us less. We take it personally, as we have 13 million employee jobs depending on your visits. That burden is more than any other private sector industry. But we want to let bygones be bygones and look forward.

A very important time of year is coming up. Just as we know the past months are slower due to your vacation and back-to-school schedules, we know you enjoy visiting and spending more the next three months than any other time of the year. During this period in 2011, we saw a 1.4-percent increase in same-store sales — an increase that would be reasonable to meet again this year, especially since you'll have more days to shop and dine.

We know you are a bit worried about the uncertainty from our government, high gas prices and the possibility of continued sluggish business impacting your own life. But we are here to serve you and make your life better for having a meal, drink or snack with us. After all, America works best when you spend in our economy — especially in our restaurants. (Ok, I’m biased, but I follow this advice myself. American Express knows.)

Why don't you come to enjoy us more often?

On behalf of your committed restaurateurs,

Wallace B. Doolin

The Restaurant Industry Snapshot is a compilation of real sales and traffic results from 172 DMAs from 72 distinct restaurant brands and approximately 14,000 restaurants that are clients of Black Box Intelligence. Currently, data is reported in four distinct segments: casual dining, upscale/fine-dining, fast casual, and family dining. Black Box Intelligence is a sister company to People Report, which tracks one million restaurant employees on workforce analytics. The Restaurant Industry Snapshot also includes the “Restaurant Industry Willingness to Spend Index” from Consumer Edge Research, which is a monthly household survey of more than 2,500 consumers. Consumer Edge Insights is a marketing partner with Black Box Intelligence and People Report.

Wallace B. Doolin
Doolin is chairman of Thomas Doolin and Associates LLC, the holding company of People Report, the leader in human capital business intelligence for the restaurant industry and Black Box Intelligence. He is the founder of Black Box Intelligence, a state of the art business intelligence product for the restaurant industry. Additionally, serves as a trustee of the National Restaurant Association and is a past chairman of the National Restaurant Association's Education Foundation. Other current responsibilities include public company board of director service for Caribou Coffee and Famous Dave’s. Previously, Doolin served as CEO of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide and TGI Friday’s, Buca, Inc and La Madeleine.

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