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Pizza from QSR brands generated the most positive online reviews and mentions during January and February.

Black Box Intelligence: Restaurants see signs of rebound in February

Sales, guest satisfaction both improve as industry builds momentum

Restaurant sales in February continued showing signs of improvement for the industry and fueling optimism for continued recovery in 2021.

Harsh winter storms caused havoc in large regions of the country during the second and third weeks of February, severely hurting restaurant sales. Same-store sales were down by more than 40% year-over-year in Texas during the third week of the month; sales were down by close to 30% in the Southwest region that same week.

But sales during the rest of the month reflect a performance improvement from the results during the last months of 2020. Clearly the industry turned a corner since the first week of the year and is on a new path to recovery.

For more on sales, traffic and workforce trends in February, visit: Springtime Stimulus Checks Fuel Sales Optimism for Restaurant Industry.

There is also upward momentum in positive net sentiment for restaurant guests. The percentage of online reviews that were mainly classified “restaurant food” were 6 percentage points more positive year-over-year in February. In addition, after a small dip in January, the percentage of these food-centered reviews that were classified as positive was over 50% of the total.

Service sentiment dropped slightly in January compared to the last two months of 2020. As restrictions began lifting again and more people were dining in, there was a small stumble at the beginning of the year. But, by February, the industry corrected course and the percentage of positive service-centered reviews improved by 4.4 percentage points year over year.

Although declining slightly in February, “intent to return” sentiment continued to be relatively strong. Since September 2020, over 60% of these reviews were classified as positive.

Connecting the dots

Online food reviews have revealed that most guests are satisfied with restaurant meals. But what are the menu items that are driving this positive sentiment the most? Which items are getting the most positive mentions in those reviews? Not surprisingly, the answer to these questions varies widely between the industry’s two largest segments.

Quick service has been outperforming the industry since the beginning of the pandemic. A big driver behind their superior results is the historically higher mix of off-premise meals, which became a huge strength in the COVID era. Pizza from QSR brands generated the most positive online reviews and mentions during January and February. This has typically been a cuisine geared toward off-premise consumption so naturally it has been thriving in the current environment.

Guest affinity toward chicken and the popularity of chicken sandwiches also came through loud and clear in online guest sentiment. These menu items were the second most-mentioned when guests rated positive food experiences at quick-service restaurants in the first two months of the year. Rounding off the top three in these restaurants we find fries, another staple of QSR menus.

For casual-dining restaurants, guest preferences were reflective of the pent-up demand for the full restaurant experience, which has been scarce in recent months. Steak, an item usually associated with higher price full-service experience and meals on specials, received the most positive mentions in January and February.

Shrimp was the third most mentioned item with positive sentiment. Like steak, it is commonly a higher-ticket menu item. Sales are improving for restaurants and consumers seem to be more optimistic about their outlook. This is reflected in their menu orders and what foods they are highlighting in their reviews.

Online menu mentions also signal guests being more health-conscious at the beginning of a new year as they follow through on their resolutions. Salads were the second most positively mentioned item in casual dining during January and February.

Top designated market areas

Orlando, Fla., was the major metropolitan area with the most positive restaurant sentiment based on food, beverage and service in February. The Orlando market has consistently had the most positive sentiment in multiple attributes of the restaurant experience. What is more interesting, perhaps, is what happened with the other three attributes in February.

Among the 25 major markets in the country, New York, Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif., were included in the five with the worst same-store sales growth. But New York and Sacramento had the highest restaurant “intent to return” sentiment. Los Angeles is in the top seven markets based on positive sentiment on this key metric. Los Angeles was the major market with the most positive restaurant value sentiment, followed by New York.

Despite the steep challenges restaurants face in these markets, many operators are stepping up and meeting their guests’ expectations. This can be a sign of restaurant guests continuing to rally behind restaurants online with positive reviews to help lift them from this crisis. Restaurants in some markets are still behind in the road to bring the full restaurant experience back to their guests, but better times are ahead for the industry overall.

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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