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Consumer Trends

For consumers, delivery reigns but buffets are bouncing back, says Yelp report

The 2021 Yelp Economic Average studied search terms on the review platform to track the pandemic’s continued impact on restaurants.
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Food delivery remains hugely popular amid the pandemic’s ups and downs. But consumers are returning to communal dining concepts such as buffets and conveyor belt sushi.

Those are some of the findings of the 2021 Yelp Economic Report, released by the review platform this month.

The report also found that consumers are noticing higher prices more than ever before—though it hasn’t impacted their dining-out behavior just yet.

Yelp analyzed reviews of all types to find terms that are indicative of inflation, such as “higher prices,” “used to be cheaper” and “more expensive.”

Those inflationary terms surged to a five-year high during the fourth quarter of 2021, a 29% increase over the same period the year before.

Despite that, Yelp also found more people searching for higher-priced businesses.

It’s little wonder consumers have noticed the higher prices. Last month, quick-service restaurants raised prices 8% and full-service prices climbed 6.6%. Data firm Black Box Intelligence surveyed online reviews and found more negative comments around value.

The Yelp survey also looked at new business openings, finding a busy year for new restaurants and food businesses in 2021. Those openings were 10% above 2020 levels. Those new openings peaked in June, but took a major slide in the fall and winter months. Southern states, including Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, saw the biggest growth in new business openings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, food delivery remained hugely popular in 2021. Consumer interest in delivery was 7% higher during the fourth quarter of 2021 than during the same period the previous year and a whopping 107% higher than pre-pandemic levels, Yelp found.

Even with the high demand for delivery, diners showed a return to going out. Communal dining, in particular, rebounded in the fourth quarter of 2021, with a 97% increase in consumer interest in dinner theater, a 55% jump in conveyor belt sushi and hot pot, a 31% increase in buffet searches and a 23% increase in dim sum.

“Overall, 2021 underscored how the pandemic, coupled with supply chain and labor constraints, and pent-up demand, complicate the economic recovery,” the report’s authors wrote.

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