Restaurant sales show recovery even before stimulus hits

Restaurants are heading into spring on an upward trajectory, but the weather has again proven to remain a singular influential factor in industry performance, according to recently released sales data.

This data also shows how far restaurants have to go before they can say they are fully recovered.

Restaurant sales tracker Black Box Intelligence said on Tuesday the industry had its third-best week since the start of the pandemic in the week ended March 7 – with positive same-store sales at restaurants in limited service, while fine dining showed improved sales . It was the best week since mid-January when consumers armed with stimulus money flocked to restaurants, suggesting consumers are returning as more states lift restrictions designed to hold back COVID from a distance.

In fact, according to the index, every week so far this year, outside of the weather-affected weeks in mid-February, has seen improvement. The numbers suggest the industry is on the road to recovery as spring approaches, with many operators expecting strong sales due to easy comparisons and stimulus cash.

Admittedly, the weather has once again proven its ability to influence sales. Same-store sales fell 12.6% last month, according to Black Box, a drop of 7.8 percentage points from February. Same-store traffic fell 23% in the third week of the month, the industry’s worst week since June, according to the index.

Federal retail sales data released Tuesday also point to a slowdown over the past month. Total restaurant sales fell 2.5% in February, according to new data from the US Census Bureau.

Cold weather and severe storms hit much of the country last month, allowing consumers to stay home while eliminating the prospect of dining al fresco in hot weather. Texas, the nation’s second-largest restaurant market, was hit particularly hard by a combination of bad weather and widespread power outages.

Census data also shows how far the industry needs to go to fully recover from the drop in sales during the pandemic.

Sales last month were 17% lower than February 2020 – the last month before a pandemic led to widespread dining hall closures.

Restaurants generated $54.2 billion in sales last month, down $11 billion from February 2020.

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