Restaurant sales continue improving year over year, but the growth rate is slowing down. According to the latest Black Box Intelligence data from TDn2K, same-store sales growth was 0.2 percent during the second quarter of 2019, despite slightly negative growth in June.
Although this year-over-year growth is discouraging, it highlights the underlying conditions of the restaurant industry which have existed for years. There are too many restaurants and while consumer spending is stronger than recent years, it is far from robust. As the industry laps over months with stronger sales a year ago (as it is starting to do and will continue to face throughout the rest of the year), sales growth is expected to continue to decline.
Sentiment data from White Box Social Intelligence reveals that guest intent to return improved slightly year over year during June. However, positive service and ambiance sentiment have been stumbling compared with the same months a year ago. These two attributes of the restaurant experience have consistently been found the strongest differentiating factors for top performing restaurant brands; thus, the ones guests seem to be placing a bigger weight when rating their overall experiences. The fact that their sentiment is beginning to fall should be a concern looking forward for chain restaurants.
Despite the stumbling sentiment for ambiance overall, top performing brands* based on sales have been able to achieve much better ambiance net sentiment scores than their competitors. More than food or beverage, ambiance most determine if a guest is likely to return. Of course, awful food will ruin a restaurant visit, but food executed within the intended parameters will not move the needle as much as a nice, inviting atmosphere throughout a guest's restaurant experience according to TDn2K research.
What do guests look for when describing a restaurant's ambiance? What are the key words have the highest value? The terms used most by guests when describing ambiance are "appearance," "clean,” and "décor.” It is important to highlight that appearance and especially cleanliness are things that can fall into operations and the people side of the business. Plus, they are things that can be worked on and improved every day.
We know ambiance is important in the eyes of the guest and it is a top differentiating factor among brands. But how different is performance? According to TDn2K, restaurant brands that consistently had top same-store sales performance going back to 2017 had, on average, 12.7 percentage point higher net sentiment for their ambiance compared with the rest of the industry in 2019 as of June.
*based on same-store sales growth
Good news for the industry is the fact that, again, all of the regions of the country had over 50 percent of their online restaurant comments and reviews classified as positive.
The region with the highest restaurant positive sentiment was Florida, the only one where over 60 percent of all mentions were positive. Also, the Western region and Mountain plains, two regions that are no strangers to the best performing list, are among the most positive.
As has been constantly the case, guests in the northeast part of the country tend to be less positive when rating their restaurant experiences. The regions with the weakest restaurant sentiment during June were the Mid-Atlantic, New England and New York-New Jersey.
The Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot is produced by White Box Social Intelligence™, a TDn2K Product™. WBSI is tracking over 192 brands to benchmark customer satisfaction and is the only online tool that integrates with operational performance data to validate the impact on financial performance. The algorithm determining ranking brands is based on sentiment and determined by White Box Social Intelligence. Brands included in this monthly snapshot must have a total of at least 250 mentions for the month. Restaurants must have a minimum number of units to be eligible as well. DMA rankings consider only the largest 25 areas.