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Restaurant visits exceed pre-recession counts

Consumers made more visits to U.S. restaurants during a recent 12-month period than any other time since before the recession began, a symbol of a slowly stabilizing economy, food-industry experts say.

The 61.1 billion visits from June 1, 2014, to May 31, demonstrate a rebound for restaurants, which had been seeing customer visits decline every year since 2010, says Warren Solochek, vice president of client development for research company NPD Group.

Though sales were up in many cases during those years, those numbers didn’t often present a clear picture of the industry, he says, as rising labor, utility and commodity costs forced menu prices, and thus sales, skyward. As a result, customer visits can be a more accurate measure of the industry’s health.

“The government said that the recession was over in 2011 or 2012, but consumer behavior didn’t really change,” Solochek says. “For the restaurant industry, the recession was not over. It has taken us a really long time to get back to pre-recession levels.”

The majority of last year’s visits—eight in 10, in fact—occurred at quick-service restaurants, he says. “Whatever growth has taken place has mostly been in QSRs, while full-service restaurants have seen flat or declining (visits).”

Lunch visits, in particular, saw strong growth during the first quarter of 2015, NPD Group research found. The expanding workforce is largely responsible for lunch’s renaissance, Solochek says, as those who spend their days away from home are more likely to buy lunch out. While employment has increased, wages have stagnated in many industries, which has been a boon to fast casuals, he adds, thanks to their promise of better food at a less-indulgent price.

“People still like to go out to eat,” he says, “but the fact that QSRs are really dominating shows that people are still watching their wallets fairly closely.” 

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