Consumer Trends

Americans are eating their fast food later in the day

McDonald’s and Chipotle have seen a shift in business from earlier in the day toward dinner, according to data from Placer.ai. And that shift seems permanent.
McDonald's
McDonald's traffic has shifted from lunch to the evening. | Photo courtesy of McDonald's.

Customers may be eating their high-end restaurant meals earlier, but they appear to be eating their fast food later.

That, at least, is according to data from Placer.ai, which examined share of traffic at Chipotle, Panda Express and McDonald’s over the past four years.

For McDonald’s and Chipotle, in particular, the brands saw a shift in business from lunch, and breakfast in McDonald’s case, toward later in the day.

For instance, last year 21.2% of McDonald’s customers visited the restaurants from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., according to Placer.ai. That’s up from 18.8% in 2019, the year before the pandemic. By contrast, the share of visits from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. remains well below 2019 levels, at 16.7%, compared with 18% in 2019—though that 16.7% was up from 15.9% in 2022.

The share of business at lunchtime, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., remains well below pre-pandemic levels, at 29.9% last year, down from 33.4% before the pandemic. The share of business in the late afternoon, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., is relatively steady, at 25.8% in 2023 from 24.9% in 2019.

The numbers are similar at Chipotle, though clearly absent the breakfast. The share of business during lunch was 36.2% last year, down from 40% in 2019. Business increased from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. And last year the company got 26.3% of its traffic from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., up from 23.9% in 2019.

In short, the two major purveyors of limited-service meals to consumers lost business at lunch and gained it from customers seeking a late-evening snack or dinner.

To be sure, the numbers aren’t that way for everybody. Placer.ai also shows statistics from Panda Express that more or less showed the fast-casual Asian chain had relatively little shift in traffic during the day.

Still, the shift at McDonald’s and Chipotle shows that some consumer changes may be permanent, or at least slow to return.

Restaurants lost breakfast business during the pandemic, as consumers stopped commuting. People returning to work, or stopping by fast-food concepts later in the morning for a break, have helped brands get some of that business back.

But lunch business remains lower than it was in 2019 at many concepts, as there are fewer people working in the office.

That said, companies have been able to overcome that with strategies. Panda Express’s share of business from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels, which Placer.ai suggested could be due to its focus on takeout.

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