January was encouraging for the restaurant industry. With same-store sales growth of -4.9% and traffic growth of -12.2%, it was the best performance for restaurants since the beginning of the pandemic almost a year ago.
This is good news for an industry that struggled the last two months of 2020, as sales and traffic growth worsened compared to the COVID-era peak achieved in October. Likely contributing to some of the consumer pent up demand for restaurant spending was a combination stimulus check distribution, a sense of optimism from turning the page on 2020 and the increased prospect of additional government aid soon.
There also continues to be resiliency from restaurant operators, and perhaps some goodwill from restaurant guests as well. Despite all the challenges being faced by the industry, guest sentiment as measured through online reviews and comments remains more positive than it was a year ago for the key attributes of the restaurant experience.
Guest sentiment based on restaurant food became 3.8 percentage points more positive in January year over year. However, less than 50% of all reviews centered around food were classified as positive during the month, while the industry had consistently been achieving over 50% positive food sentiment during the previous five months. As sales and traffic experienced an upswing in January, it may have become harder to keep up in terms of consistency and execution, especially considering the reduced staffing levels experienced by most in the industry.
The story is similar when analyzing restaurant service. The good news is that guests continue to rate their service experiences most positively than they did a year ago (before COVID had hit at a significant national level). Although over 50% of service-centered reviews were classified as positive during January, the month also experienced the lowest percentage of positive service mentions since July. Like food, an increased pace of business may also be causing pressures on the service model of restaurants.
Since the summer, an emerging theme in online social data related to restaurants was how ambiance net sentiment started to improve year over year. But it was not the usual components that usually come up when discussing restaurant ambiance that were driving this improvement in guest sentiment. Rather, it was something as unglamorous as cleanliness that guests cared about more than anything else. Given that a global pandemic had just hit our country it was obvious these were not normal times and guests were rightfully hyper-focused on their safety when visiting restaurants.
Nine months into the pandemic, guests have learned to live and adapt to their new conditions. Has their perception on restaurant ambiance changed? Have they gone back to focusing on other, more elevated aspects of the restaurant’s atmosphere when they discuss their restaurant experiences online?
Recent data from Black Box Guest Intelligence™ reveals not much has changed. Guest sentiment based on restaurant ambiance became more positive by 7.5 percentage points year over year during the fourth quarter of 2020. But the two subcomponents of ambiance that saw the biggest improvements in net sentiment were cleanliness, which improved by 18.3 percentage points year over year, and the newly tracked “safety” category, which became 17.3 percentage points more positive during the period.
The good news is overall, restaurants keep doing a good job at implementing and executing on their policies to keep their restaurants clean and safe as we continue to face this health crisis. Instead of restaurants showing fatigue due to the length of the pandemic and safety practices slipping up, guests continue to be increasingly satisfied with what they see once they decide to dine out or order some food for off-premise consumption. Cleanliness and safety continue to be at the forefront of their concerns, and for the most part restaurants are succeeding in meeting those expectations.
By comparison, ambiance sentiment based on restaurant appearance only improved 7.2 percentage points year over year during the fourth quarter, while ambiance based on restaurant décor declined 5.0 percentage points during the same period.
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.