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McDonald's and Chipotle's Post-Pandemic Success

Bracha Arnold
October 20, 2022
McDonald's and Chipotle's Post-Pandemic Success

With Q3 2022 behind us, we took a closer look at two of the most well-known restaurant chains, McDonald’s and Chipotle, to see what their foot traffic patterns reveal about their current position within the wider food industry.

McDonald’s: Ahead of the QSR Pack

McDonald's is one of the most well-known food chains in the world, with nearly 40,000 locations worldwide, almost 14,000 of those within the U.S. The company is now planning to expand its store fleet for the first time in eight years.

And although the company is already the undisputed QSR king, McDonald’s strength is still growing, even as the foot traffic to the broader QSR category stalls slightly in the face of inflation. In September 2022, visits to McDonald's increased 6.2% year-over-year (YoY), while visits to the wider QSR category grew by just 0.8% in the same period. 

McDonald’s foot traffic hikes in the face of more muted category-wide growth highlight the advantage that some particularly strong players gained from the pandemic. As other dining chains were forced to shutter locations and rightsize in order to stay in business, brands like McDonald’s that successfully weathered the storm are now benefiting from reduced competition and a consolidated QSR market.

Nostalgia Boosting the Burger 

But McDonald’s current strength is not just due to a more favorable QSR space. The company is tapping into its older consumer base’s nostalgia to draw millennials back to the chain with the recently introduced adult Happy Meals, available for a limited time.

So far, the promotion has been a resounding success – visits to McDonald's spiked dramatically with the release of the adult Happy Meals. Throughout August and September, weekly foot traffic to McDonald's remained fairly steady, with YoY weekly visits staying between 2.4% and 9.7% above 2021 levels. But the week of October 3rd – when the Happy Meals launched – saw a massive jump in foot traffic, with 37.1% more visits than the equivalent week last year. 

The success of McDonald’s adult Happy Meal following an already robust Q3 suggests that there is always room to grow – even for the brands at the very top of their game. 

Chipotle Keeping Ahead of the Fast Casual Category

Like McDonald’s, Chipotle has also seen impressive foot traffic patterns over the past few years and continues to outpace its category peers. As many restaurants permanently closed, Chipotle was opening locations – mainly in smaller markets. The chain is now well-positioned to continue growing, as other brands are still catching up to their pre-pandemic visit levels. 

The chain’s YoY monthly visits remained consistently positive all year even in the face of wider declines among the fast-casual restaurant sector. In August and September, Chipotle saw its YoY visits elevated by 11.7% and 5.5%, respectively, while the fast-casual segment was down 2.7% YoY during the same months. 

Breakfast Burritos Leading the Way

And even though Chipotle was not forced to shut down locations due to a COVID-induced drop in demand like many other brands, the pandemic still impacted the chain – but Chipotle has successfully adapted to shifting consumer behaviors without missing a beat.

Comparing the share of hourly visits in Q3 in 2019, 2021, and 2022 shows that the share of breakfast visits – between 7-11 AM – increased to 22.7% in Q3 2022, up from 9.3% and 8.8% in Q3 2021 and 2019, respectively. At the same time, the share of lunch and dinner time visits decreased slightly in 2022. Although Chipotle does not currently have a specialized breakfast menu, the change in consumer behavior towards morning visits and away from midday and evening visits have not reduced the chain’s foot traffic. The brand’s fully customizable menu, where customers can create their perfect breakfast burrito when ordering both in-person and on the app, has likely helped the chain meet its customers’  shifting preferences without investing in a complete menu overhaul. 

As breakfast restaurants continue to rise in popularity, Chipotle is well positioned to continue benefiting from this new hourly segment. 

Strong Quarterly Growth Fueling Expansion Plans

Both McDonald’s and Chipotle weathered the pandemic storm impressively and are now solidifying their positions as the dominant QSR and fast-casual leaders. And as inflation lingers, these brands continue to lead the restaurant pack. 

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