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Catching Up With Fast Food

by 
Bracha Arnold
 on 
January 23, 2024
Catching Up With Fast Food

2023 was a challenging year for many restaurant operators as persistent inflation caused many would-be diners to rethink going out for a bite to eat. Today, we take a closer look at three fast-food and fast-casual dining chains – McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Panda Express – to see what – and who – is driving visits to these restaurants. 

Biting Into Demographics

McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Panda Express each boast thousands of locations across the country. And a closer look at the three chains’ trade areas, analyzed using the STI: Popstats dataset, reveals differences in visitors across each dining chain. The median household income (HHI) of the three chains’ trade areas differed both on a nationwide average basis and when diving into individual states.

Chipotle consistently drew in visitors coming from higher-income trade areas – its nationwide median HHI stood at $75.9K/year. In contrast, Panda Express’ trade area had nationwide median HHIs of $68.2K/year, and McDonald’s, known for its affordability, had a trade area median $61.2K/year, respectively. And these trends persisted across all analyzed states, including New York, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida, with Chipotle drawing visitors from the highest-income areas, followed by Panda Express and then McDonald’s. 

Breakfast, Lunch, Or Dinner?

The past few years have seen consumers shifting their dining patterns as the pandemic with its more flexible schedules and drop in office attendance led many to adjust when, and where, they went out to eat. And though some pre-COVID habits have now returned, other consumer behaviors have proved to be stickier.  

For example, McDonald’s saw a significant drop in its share of early morning and lunch visits between 2019 and 2021, likely a result of fewer workers heading into the office and grabbing a coffee or Big Mac for a pick-me-up. But 2023 saw breakfast visits ticking back up, growing from 15.9% to 16.7% YoY, perhaps driven by a gradual return to in-person work.

Meanwhile, Panda Express, which also saw lunchtime visits drop in 2021 – but visits between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM have steadily increased since and almost reached pre-pandemic levels in 2023. Midday visits also increased while dinnertime (7 PM to 10 PM) visits decreased slightly – perhaps thanks to the chain’s recent focus on building out its to-go options, which allows customers to pick up dinner on their way home instead of heading out to dine on-premises.

Like the other two chains, Chipotle also experienced a decline in lunchtime visits in 2021 – but unlike Panda Express, the lunchtime rush at Chipotle has yet to return in full force, with the share of visits between 11 AM and 2 PM just 36.2% in 2023 compared to 40.0% in 2019. At the same time, mid-afternoon (3 PM to 6 PM) visits picked up, which may be due to the chain’s relatively high prices compared to the other two chains leading some consumers to stick with lower-cost afternoon snacks instead of full meals. And evening visits have also increased since COVID, perhaps driven by the wider QSR trend towards more late-night visits and by some consumers choosing to visit Chipotle for their main meal of the day instead of splurging on an on-the-go lunch. 

Final Plates

McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Panda Express have managed to find their own niche within the crowded and competitive world of quick-service and fast-casual dining. Will their success continue into 2024? 

Visit placer.ai/blog to find out.

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