The restaurant industry’s sales stumbled again in November as the number of COVID cases rose rapidly and colder weather started to become an obstacle for outdoor dining in many areas of the country. Same-store sales growth was -10.3%, which represented a 3.8 percentage point drop from October’s year over year sales growth rate. November’s -16.3% same-store traffic fell by 3.3 percentage points compared to the previous month’s performance. This was the worst month for the industry since August based on year over year losses in sales and traffic.
But perhaps the most concerning insight from the latest data is that restaurant sales worsened throughout the month. Additionally, by the last week of November, same-store sales growth was the worst experienced by the industry in almost four months, signaling that we may be in the middle of a new restaurant downturn.
But there is some good news for the industry coming from the latest data insights uncovered by Black Box Intelligence™. Although sales were not good during the month, guests indicated they were increasingly satisfied with their restaurant experiences. Guests have rallied behind restaurants and have been forgiving despite many of the challenges faced by the industry.
During November, the percentage of restaurant food online mentions and reviews that was classified as positive grew by 7.0 percentage points compared to the same month in 2019. Service-related mentions became more positive by 6.0 percentage points year over year. The crucial intent to return metric also became more positive during November, an encouraging sign showcasing restaurants’ efforts in driving guest satisfaction in the middle of the pandemic. Furthermore, intent to return scores are almost at the levels they were immediately before the virus outbreak back in March.
Considering that restaurant food sentiment is improving among guests, an opportunity is presented to explore their favorite menu items. What foods are they mentioning most often and assigning a positive sentiment? As would be expected, the answer varied widely between different kinds of restaurants.
For limited-service restaurants, the menu item most frequently mentioned when describing a positive food experience in November was by far pizza. The second most mentioned menu items were burgers, followed by chicken (which included chicken sandwiches). This is welcome validation for those restaurants that are having great success selling those items. According to the financial data tracked by Black Box Intelligence, the three restaurant cuisine types that have been outperforming the rest throughout the pandemic are precisely pizza, burgers and chicken. As the rest of the industry struggles, those restaurants specializing in those food items are experiencing strong positive same-store sales growth on average. But overlying this guest sentiment data reveals that while these menu items benefit from being typically associated with limited-service restaurants (which are doing better overall) and the fact that they are well-suited for off-premise sales environment, success is also coming from great execution. Guests are mentioning these menu items the most and when they do, they overwhelmingly describe a positive experience.
For full-service restaurants, the menu item that got the largest number of positive guest mentions during November was steak. And it is relevant to mention that this is not driven by fine dining or even upscale casual. Steak was the most mentioned menu item in casual dining when describing a positive food experience.
The other menu items most commonly mentioned with a positive sentiment during November were wings, followed by salad.
The Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot (RGSS) is produced by data from Black Box Guest Intelligence™. Guest Intelligence is tracking over 190 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 data set focuses on six key attributes of the restaurant industry experience: food, service, ambiance, beverage, value and intent to return.
The RGSS algorithm determines the highest ranking brands based on sentiment. 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.