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Restaurant sales are showing recovery even before the stimulus hits

Black Box Intelligence data show sales continue to improve, but data from February show the industry has a long way to go for a full recovery.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Restaurants are heading into the spring on an upward trajectory, but the weather has again demonstrated it remains a singular influential factor in the industry’s performance, according to recently released sales data.

That data also show how far restaurants have to go before they can say they are fully recovered.

The restaurant sales tracker Black Box Intelligence said on Tuesday that the industry had its third-best week since the start of the pandemic in the week ended March 7—with positive same-store sales at limited-service restaurants, while fine dining demonstrated improved sales. It was the best week since mid-January when consumers armed with stimulus cash flocked to restaurants, suggesting that consumers are returning as more states lift restrictions designed to keep COVID at bay.

In fact, the index said, every week so far this year outside of weather-affected weeks in mid-February have seen improvement. The numbers suggest that the industry is on the road to recovery heading into a spring, when many operators expect strong sales due to easy comparisons and stimulus cash.

To be sure, weather has again proved its ability to influence sales. Same-store sales declined 12.6% last month, according to Black Box, a 7.8 percentage point drop from February. Same-store traffic fell 23% in the third week of the month, the worst week for the industry since June, the index said.

Federal retail sales data released on Tuesday also point to a slowdown last month. Total restaurant sales declined 2.5% in February, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cold weather and severe storms hit much of the country last month, which kept consumers at home while eliminating the prospect of outdoor dining in warm weather states. Texas, the country’s second-biggest restaurant market, was hit especially hard by a combination of bad weather and widespread power outages.

Census data also shows how far the industry has to go to fully recover from sales declines during the pandemic.

Sales last month were 17% lower than they were in February 2020—the last month before a pandemic led to widespread closures of dining rooms.

Restaurants generated $54.2 billion in sales last month, down $11 billion from February 2020.

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