The coronavirus pandemic is affecting different chains in different ways. For evidence, look no further than the Toronto-based brand operator Restaurant Brands International (RBI).
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, the company’s smallest concept but also its hottest one, has returned all the way to its remarkably strong pre-COVID levels, based on updated sales figures from the company on Thursday.
The chain’s U.S. same-store sales were “trending in the positive low-40s” as of the third week of May. Those sales had been flat in the second half of March.
By contrast, the largely breakfast-driven Canadian chain Tim Hortons remains down in the mid-20s in Canada as of that same period, the company said, though that was up from a decline in the mid-40s at the end of March. The bulk of Tim’s nearly 5,000 locations are north of the U.S. border.
RBI’s flagship Burger King brand is down in the U.S., but in the “mid-single-digits,” a far more normalized level than the more than 30% decline it had in late March.
In a statement on Thursday, RBI said it was “encouraged” by the sales improvement.
“We are encouraged by the continued sales improvement in our home markets for Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes,” CEO Jose Cil said. “All three of our brands have benefited from guests who have increased their usage of our thousands of drive-thrus across North America as a safe, quick and convenient option to feed themselves and their families.”
The numbers reflect a broad improvement in the chain restaurant business in recent weeks, as customers dined out more often but went to restaurants with drive-thrus, well-established takeout strategies and delivery.
The result has been a wide range of performances, as chains like the full-service family dining concept Denny’s have just a fraction of their pre-pandemic business while delivery concepts like Papa John’s are up well over 30%.
For Popeyes, the sales results likely suggest a new normal brought on by the company’s introduction of a chicken sandwich late last year that proved to be remarkably popular. Even with its late-March slowdown same-store sales last quarter were up 29.2%, following a 37.9% fourth quarter.
The chain has drive-thrus, which consumers have used with frequency during the pandemic. It also does not have a breakfast service, which has generally been the weakest performing daypart.
That helps explain Burger King’s relative weakness. While the burger chain’s sales improved, it was relatively weak going into the pandemic—same-store sales lagged competitors McDonald’s and Wendy’s late last year and earlier this year—and its breakfast daypart likely kept sales down.
Similarly, Tim Hortons’ Canadian business has struggled with a lack of breakfast business, and the company was also struggling going into the pandemic. Same-store sales declined 4.6% in its home Canadian market in the fourth quarter of last year, prompting the company to promise a turnaround.
RBI said that “substantially all” of its restaurants in its three brands are open in their respective home markets. It also noted that 60% of restaurants in Europe, the Middle East and Africa are open, 85% in Asia and 50% in Latin America.
“Many of our restaurants continue to operate with limited service modes,” RBI said in a federal securities filing. “We expect to continue our reopening process very carefully and with guest and team member safety as our top priority.”
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