As the effect of the winter weather subsided, restaurant sales rebounded during April after lackluster March performance. Same-store sales growth was 1.9% in April, a significant 1.1% improvement from the previous month’s year-over-year growth rate. The industry has now experienced ten consecutive months of positive same-store sales. This insight comes from data reported by TDn2K’s Black Box Intelligence through The Restaurant Industry Snapshot for April, based on weekly sales from over 20,000 restaurant units representing $48 billion dollars in annual revenue.
“As expected, the downturn in March seems to have been primarily weather related. April results confirmed that the underlying economic conditions and consumer optimism are relatively solid and the restaurant industry’s positive sales momentum continues into the second quarter,” said Victor Fernandez, Executive Director of Insights and Knowledge for TDn2K. “We are currently in the strongest period of growth for chain restaurants since the recession. The only other comparable growth period has been the twenty consecutive months of positive sales growth ending in February 2012. However, that was as the industry was coming out of the highly depressed sales at the end of the recession and the average same-store sales growth rate during those months was only 1.5%. As a comparison, the average year-over-year sales growth rate during the last 10 months has been a more impressive 2.2%”.
Though same-store traffic growth improved by 0.9% from March’s results, the -1.5% growth rate posted in April proves that declining guest counts continues to be the biggest challenge for the chain restaurant industry. “Once the effects of winter are removed from the equation, it is clear that the industry is still having trouble retaining the frequency with which diners visit their establishments. Additionally, diners are spending their money on other food away from home options such as independent restaurants, convenience stores, prepared foods from grocery stores, etc.”, continued Fernandez. “What we have observed over the last three months is that diners are going out to eat less at chain restaurants, but every time they dine at one of these restaurants they are spending more than they were a year ago.”
Another sign of the relative strength of restaurant sales can be found in the regional results during April. For the first time since January, all eleven regions of the country experienced positive growth in their same-store sales. The best performing region during April was California with 3.1% same-store sales growth, while the worst performing region was Southwest with a barely positive 0.01% growth. 149 individual markets out of the 190 DMAs tracked by Black Box Intelligence experienced positive growth in their same-store sales during April.
Regarding job growth, the restaurant industry mirrored the slowdown in net job creation experienced by the overall national labor market during March. According to TDn2K’s People Report, restaurants added jobs at a pace of 1.9% year-over-year in March, a 1.0% drop from the growth reported for February.
This drop in job growth despite the pressures of the tightening labor market continue to affect the restaurant industry, which again experienced rising turnover levels for both restaurant managers and hourly employees during March. Manager 12-month rolling turnover has now increased in eleven of the past twelve months, while restaurant hourly employee turnover has risen steadily for the past twenty months.
Restaurant guest satisfaction, measured by TDn2K’s White Box Social Intelligence, reported that “food” continued to be the top attribute (out of food, service and intent to return) based on online mentions during April. However, the percentage of all mentions that were based on food dropped from 84% in March to 78% in April. The attribute that generated the greatest increase in percentage of mentions was “service”, which increased to 16% of all mentions (a 4% increase from the previous month). The percentage of online mentions based on service has now increased steadily over the last four months.
Although the percentage of service-based online mentions continues to grow, this might actually be expressing a loss of guest satisfaction related to this attribute. The average percentage of all service mentions that was positive was 32% during the period between December and February. Since then, on average only 20% of all service mentions have been positive.
Full service restaurants continue to dominate when it comes to percentage of positive mentions for these three attributes. The top performing segment based on positive food mentions was Upscale Casual/Fine Dining; this segment was also the top performer for “intent to return” mentions for the second consecutive month. The industry segment with the highest percentage of positive service mentions was Casual Dining, which now has been the top segment during three of the last five months.