The past few years have been tough ones for the dining industry. During COVID, visits plummeted as lockdowns and social distancing kept customers eating at home. And then, just as the category began to emerge from the pandemic, it sustained another big hit as inflation led many Americans to reduce discretionary spending and avoid dining out.
But despite these challenges, some dining segments are performing better than others. We dove into the data to see which sectors are outperforming the overall industry and to check in with how some popular chains are measuring up.
Increased Appetite for Value Eats
In early 2023, year-over-year (YoY) dining visits were up across the board, reflecting the comparison to an Omicron-depressed January 2022. YoY foot traffic to the dining category as a whole began to decline from mid-February. But visits to the sector began to pick up in April, fueled primarily by increased foot traffic to more budget-friendly sub-categories, including fast food and QSR, fast casual, and coffee shops. As inflation cools and consumers adjust to higher price points, the dining sector may be in for a rebound – with less-expensive indulgences leading the way.
Drilling down into the data further and looking at chain-level visit numbers shows that many leading brands are outperforming their respective sub-categories. But other brands are also seeing success by remaining close to or exceeding 2022 visit numbers, despite the challenging economic headwinds.
Wingstop and Shake Shack: Rocking Fast Casual
Wingstop, the popular chicken wing chain, has continued its surge in visit growth, with year-over-year visits up between 17.9% and 54.8% throughout the analyzed period. In Q4 2022, Wingstop posted an 8.7% increase in domestic same-store sales, and its worldwide store fleet grew last year by 13.2%, including many openings in the U.S. By constantly finding new ways to engage creatively with its loyal fan base (ranch-flavored bath, anyone?), the chain has emerged as a major fast casual winner, and appears poised for continued success.
Shake Shack is another fast-casual restaurant that outperformed its sub-category in Q1 2023. In Q4 2022, the chain reported an annual increase of 7.8% in “Same-Shack sales,” as well as the opening of 36 new locations throughout the year. And for most of 2023 so far, Shake Shack saw a YoY increase in weekly visits. Propelled forward by gourmet burgers (how many burger joints offer a white truffle menu?) – the popular “fine casual” chain has become an international sensation.
First Watch: Maritime Morning Munch
First Watch, the popular breakfast- and brunch-only chain that famously doesn’t stay open past 2:30 PM, has also enjoyed a successful start to 2023, with YoY visits up for most weeks of the period. Since opening in 1983, First Watch has continued to expand and now boasts some 488 restaurants nationwide. In 2022, the chain reported an annual same-restaurant sales increase of 14.5% compared to the previous year. And with its commitment to healthful, mouthwatering selections – including a revolving seasonal menu that leans into the best available produce – First Watch will likely continue to draw the breakfast crowds.
KFC Outperforms Fast Food & QSR
Yum! Brands’ KFC has outpaced the Fast Food & QSR sub-category in YoY visit growth since early February 2023, with the chain experiencing a YoY foot traffic increase of more than 8.0% in the first two weeks of April. The chain’s continued strong showing may be due, in part, to new menu offerings – including long-awaited chicken nuggets and a limited-time return of the popular Double Down Sandwich. And in March, a too-good-to-be-true rumor went viral on TikTok, claiming that KFC offered free-refills to anyone that could finish a bucket in sixty minutes. The notion gained so much traction that the company had to issue a clarification – along with some nice coupons. But no publicity is bad publicity, and if recent weeks are any indication, KFC appears poised to continue to draw crowds.
Burger King on an Upswing
Burger King, for its part, appears to be making significant headway with its brand revitalization efforts. In September 2022, the company announced its “Reclaim the Flame” plan, aimed at building up the Burger King brand through a combination of advertising, menu enhancements, and fleet modernization. And by going all in on the Whopper – complete with a viral TikTok and Spotify hit – the chain seems to be on its way to turning things around. For the majority of weeks since January 2023, the chain experienced positive week-over-week (WoW) visit growth, perhaps signaling more good things to come.
As inflation continues to recede and consumers loosen their purse strings, the dining category will likely continue to improve. Which sub-sectors will draw the most visits? And which brands will continue to stand out?
Follow Placer.ai’s data-driven analyses to find out.