Restaurants lost customers and sales at the end of last year

Same-store sales slowed markedly in the second half of 2023. But for all the concern about fast food, it was casual-dining chains that had the biggest problem.
Wingstop was the big winner last quarter, but many chains saw slower sales. | Photo: Shutterstock.

Restaurant industry same-store sales slowed markedly in the second half of 2023, as high inflation both on the menu and in the economy kept people from dining out.

Same-store sales among publicly traded restaurant chains increased 1.7% in the fourth calendar quarter of last year. That was a notable slowdown from the 2.8% increase in the third quarter and the 6%-plus numbers the industry enjoyed in the first half of last year.

(For more information, check out RB’s same-store sales tracker.)

For all the concern about fast-food prices, and whether some casual-dining chains have caught up to quick-service brands like McDonald’s, it was those full-service chains that struggled the most.

Thirteen of the 21 casual-dining chains that are part of publicly traded companies reported same-store sales of 1% or less and 11 of them reported absolute declines. That includes notable stalwarts like Olive Garden, which admitted that it was losing lower-income consumers.

Yet higher-end brands didn’t exactly thrive, either. The typical fine-dining chain reported a 2.3% decline on average last quarter. Some of that may be a simple reversion to the mean, as higher-end chains like STK enjoyed a remarkable 2022, benefiting from a consumer that eagerly celebrated the end of the pandemic.

To be sure, plenty of restaurant chains in just about every sector did well. But in times when consumers are cutting back, they often pick winners and losers, creating a set of “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s no different this time.

The chicken chain Wingstop, for instance, reported 21.2% same-store sales growth in the fourth quarter as customers flocked to the chain’s restaurants for wings and chicken sandwiches.

Newly public chain Cava is targeting casual-dining customers and appeared to do plenty of that at the end of last year, with 11.4% same-store sales growth.

Among full-service concepts, the always-dependable Texas Roadhouse reported 9.9% same-store sales growth while Italian chains North Italia (7%) and Maggiano’s Little Italy (6.7%) also did well.

The bar-and-grill chain Chili’s largely bucked weak trends in its own sector, with 5% same-store sales growth last quarter.

But a lot of chains struggled. Two notable fast-casual burger chains, BurgerFi (same-store sales down 9%) and Habit Burger (down 5%) struggled. Noodles & Co. has been in freefall, down 4.2%.

Despite that, the fast-casual sector outperformed every other sector, with average same-store sales up 3.9%.

The family-dining sector performed relatively consistently, with First Watch (5% same-store sales) leading a sector that averaged 2.3% same-store sales growth.

That was on par with quick-service restaurants. Most fast-food chains reported positive same-store sales, but Tim Hortons (down 6.3%) and Pizza Hut (down 4%) both struggled.

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