Restaurant customers so far this year are paying higher prices, but they are also going out to eat less often, which is keeping sales relatively flat despite a booming economy.
That, at least, is according to the latest Technomic Chain Restaurant Index, which said that same-store sales fell 0.6% in the quarter while traffic declined 3.3%.
To be sure, at least some of the quarter’s weakness came from bad weather—frigid cold hit much of the Midwest in late January and early February, which pulled down sales and traffic.
Yet higher average check but lower traffic has been the hallmark of the restaurant industry over the past couple of years.
In March, where weather was less of an influence, sales declined 0.2% and traffic fell 3.4%.
“No matter how you cut it, the first quarter was pretty tough,” said Adam Roberts, senior program manager with Technomic, a sister company of Restaurant Business Magazine.
March Technomic Chain Restaurant Index
The Technomic Index is a broad measure of restaurant sales among the 200 largest chains, as measured by the Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report. The data used in the index comes from Transaction Insights, which collects spending data from 4 million customers and about 24 million monthly restaurant visits.
While the broader industry has struggled to generate traffic, casual dining chains continued to face bigger challenges, as they confront shifting consumer demands and demographic issues not working in their favor.
Sales at casual dining and fine dining chains declined 4.8% in the first quarter, including 3.7% in March.
Traffic was worse, falling 8% in the quarter and 7% in March. For the past 12 months, traffic at casual and fine dining chains declined 5.8%—170 basis points lower than any other sector.
The overall market appears to be more favorable to limited-service chains, as consumers shift spending toward more convenience-oriented fare. Quick-service sales rose 0.8% in the first quarter and 1.2% in March.
But fast-casual chains saw sales slow so far this year—their sales rose just 0.2% in the first quarter but declined 0.5% in March. Traffic fell 5% in March, according to Technomic.
“The poor performance is definitely driven by full service,” Roberts said. “Fast casual and quick service sales were still positive.”
What kind of chains did better?
For the most part, it helps to be a limited-service chicken or Mexican chain, according to Technomic. Counter-service chicken chains’ sales rose 6.5% in March, likely driven by the performance of such consistently strong chains as Chick-fil-A and Raising Cane’s.
Limited-service Mexican chains’ sales rose 5.4% in March. Taco Bell and Chipotle Mexican Grill likely helped that number.
On the other end, it’s not good to be a bar and grill concept or a sports bar—sales for such chains declined 6.2% in March and 7.5% in the first quarter.
Nor was it good to be a limited-service sandwich chain, where dominant provider Subway continues to struggle. Sales at such chains declined 4.7% in March, according to Technomic.