2021 was a mixed bag for casual dining

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As pandemic restrictions eased and people got vaccinated last year, many Americans went out to eat again.

This is evident at a glance at casual dining sales, which grew 30% year-over-year among Technomic’s Top 500 chains.

In fact, of the 182 casual chains on the annual list of America’s top-grossing brands, all but two — Ruby Tuesday and Romano’s Macaroni Grill — topped their sales performance in 2020.

The pandemic has therefore not killed on-site meals. At the same time, it would have been difficult for a sit-down restaurant do not improve after such a bad year as 2020, when casual dining sales fell more than 25%. And when you zoom out further, the results hardly signal a wholesale rejuvenation for the segment.

“As eye-catching as the percent change numbers look…cumulatively, this volume hasn’t reached 2019 levels,” said Kevin Schimpf, director of research and industry insights for Technomic.

Indeed, casual dining sales overall were still down about 4% from their pre-pandemic baseline, making 2021 a more mixed bag for the group than there was. appears. Nearly 70% of the casual channels on the list had yet to return to their 2019 sales levels.

Casual Dining Sales ($000)

Source: Technomic

One thing that is limiting sales is that there are simply fewer casual restaurants than two years ago. More than 780 casual places closed from 2019 to 2021, according to Technomic, a contraction of more than 4%.

“You’ve lost a good chunk of restaurants,” Schimpf said. “With this, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve the sales volumes that you have seen in previous years.”

Fewer restaurants isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a segment that was widely seen as overcrowded, leading to years of stagnation as the pandemic approached. And some of the biggest chains are expanding: Texas Roadhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings, Cooper’s Hawk and Walk-On’s have all opened a significant number of new stores.

And while it was a better year than 2020, 2021 had its own set of challenges that hampered operators. A historic labor shortage, supply chain issues and a series of COVID-19 spikes all weighed on sales. Every time it seemed like the segment was about to offer a clear picture of its situation, a new issue popped up to attach an asterisk to the results.

Some channels were more sensitive to pain than others. Brands with a strong presence in California or New York, where pandemic mandates were stricter, were slower to recover, while those concentrated in the South faced fewer restrictions initially, Schimpf said.

And when consumers went out to eat, they tended to favor certain menu items, especially the steak. This can be seen in the results of Texas Roadhouse, up more than 23% from 2019, and LongHorn Steakhouse, up almost 15%. Steak was the only full-service menu category to return to 2019 sales levels, according to Technomic.

After months of pandemic precautions, “people want to go out, they want to indulge, and steak is a great way to indulge,” Schimpf said.

Top 10 Casual Restaurant Chains

Source: Technomic

All of these issues, to varying degrees, held back overall casual dining sales last year.

“It’s hard to pin down, what’s the worst thing?” said Schimpf. “Is it work, is it closures, is it pandemic restrictions, is it weather, what is it? It’s probably all of the above.

The uneven environment gave “a huge mix of results like we’ve never seen before”.

A look at the top 10 casual dining chains offers some insight into this volatility. Segment leader Olive Garden’s sales were down 4.5% from 2019, while its sister brand LongHorn Steakhouse saw sales rise 14.8%. Chili’s and The Cheesecake Factory had good years, with sales up more than 5% at both chains, but their menu-varied competitor, Red Robin, was down nearly 10%. And Texas Roadhouse was in a league of its own.

Going forward, Schimpf believes consumers will be looking for either convenience or experience when making dining decisions. Casual dining chains that rely heavily on the latter will be set up for long-term success, he said. But in general, the segment may struggle to build on its pre-pandemic form.

“I think overall it’s going to look relatively stagnant, but in that kind of stagnant number you’re still going to see a lot of variance,” Schimpf said. “There are still chains of growth.”

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