December 2020 restaurant sales were the lowest since July

The fourth quarter of 2020 was bad for restaurant sales, with December being “the worst month” since July, according to the latest data from Black Box Intelligencewho shared the information in its monthly Nation’s Restaurant News update.

In December, comparable store sales growth fell to -13.3% year over year, while comparable store traffic growth reached -18.6%. By comparison, November comparable store sales were -10.3% and comparable store traffic growth was -16.3%.

Black Box noted that several factors contributed to weak restaurant sales numbers in November and December. These included an increase in COVID-19 cases and new restrictions in dining halls due to the increase in cases. In winter, cold weather limited or eliminated outdoor dining options in many parts of the country, further contributing to lower sales figures.

Despite weak sales numbers, Black Box suggests that restaurants “succeeded” in increasing customer sentiment for their brands in December.

Ambiance, which in this case is closely tied to cleanliness and transparency around safety procedures, saw the biggest improvement in terms of guest sentiment: “Meet or Exceed [guests] safety expectations are rewarded with positive reviews online.

A little trickier is the sentiment around the actual food. Food sentiment “dropped significantly” from November to December. This happened simultaneously with an increase in off-premises orders and a slowdown in dining room sales due to the aforementioned restrictions. As Black Box notes in this latest report, sentiment around food has “always been significantly lower” than food in the dining room.

Restaurants have risen to the challenge of maintaining quality food in a take-out environment since the pandemic first closed dining rooms nearly a year ago. Tactics for better take-out food include things like paring menus down to the essentials and completely revamping menus to offer food suitable for delivery.

Off-premises orders are now the main source of revenue in the restaurant industry and will likely continue to be for some time. The simultaneous rise of ghost kitchens only adds to this focus on delivery and takeout formats. All that to say, restaurants need to keep improving their takeout offerings, regardless of what happens to same-store sales over the next few months.

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