QSR Recap

Nationwide dining visits fell dramatically following the outbreak of the COVID pandemic and remained low throughout the beginning of 2021. But dining visits have been slowly and sporadically climbing back up, with October dining visits almost back to 2019 levels. In the context of the nationwide dining recovery, we dove into foot traffic patterns at some of the QSR visit leaders.  

Mixed Performance Within the QSR Sector

Many of the burger and chicken QSR leaders saw their visits drop dramatically over the pandemic. As late as June, year-over-two-year visits were still significantly lower than they had been in June 2019 for many popular fast food brands. But as COVID cases continue to decline, three types of recovery paths are emerging. 

The first category includes brands who managed to thrive over the pandemic, such as In-N-Out, Shake Shack, White Castle, Portillo’s, and Popeyes. Year-over-two-year visits to the chicken and biscuits concept were up by double-digits for much of the year, with October visits exceeding 2019 visits by 25.9%. Much of this was driven by expansion, or in the case of Popeyes, the long term boost from the Chicken Wars in summer 2019.

The second category consists of brands that saw a clear decrease in offline visits during the pandemic, but that have now succeeded in essentially closing the year-over-two-year visit gap. This category includes Wendy’s and McDonald’s, which saw year-over-two-year visits in October down by 1.9% and up by 3.3%, respectively. 

The third recovery profile involves brands that are still feeling the impact of the COVID-induced drop in in-person dining. This includes brands such as Burger King, Chick-fil-A, and KFC, where October dining visits were still down by 10.1%, 15.3%, and 20.4%, respectively. But it’s important to note that a drop in foot traffic performance does not necessarily mean that the brands themselves are struggling – the increase in delivery orders March 2020 is likely attenuating the impact of the slow return of in-person dining for many of these QSR chains. The same is true for those who succeeded  – while visits may have been impacted by expansion, their overall success was heavily dependent on the strength of their delivery, takeaway and drive thru channels.

Increase in Short Visits Across the Board 

One trend that affected all the QSR brands analyzed – whether they have recovered their pre-pandemic foot traffic or not – is the increase in short visits. The average share of shorter visits out of the total number of visits in August through October 2019 stood at around 50% across the board. In August through October 2021, the share of short visits climbed to around 60% for all the brands analyzed. 

This likely reflects the increase in drive-thru and take-out orders since the start of the pandemic. But it can also mean that diners who are going back to restaurants for the social experience these establishments provide are not visiting these QSR chains with the same expectations as before.

Several Strategies for Success

Turning our focus to the two QSR brands that have already closed their pandemic visit gap shows that even for the high-performing QSR players, visit patterns are not quite back to normal – and there was not a “one size fits all” strategy for QSR brands trying to weather the COVID disruption. 

McDonald’s appears to have closed its visit gap by consolidating its position as lunch and dinner provider. The fast food king’s lunchtime visits share (between the hours of 11 AM and 2 PM) did drop – from 31.9% of total visits in Q3 2019 to 29.1% of total visits in Q3 2021, but this was a much smaller drop than that experienced by Wendy’s, where the share of visits between 11 AM and 2 PM out of total daily visits fell from 40.5% to 35.1%. Critically, the decrease in lunch time visits was seen across the leading fast-food brands, and so McDonald’s relatively small drop in lunch visits indicates that the QSR king has remained the dominant QSR brand in the United States.

Wendy’s, meanwhile, appears to have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to carve out a new niche for itself as a breakfast leader. Like McDonald’s – and like most other QSR players – its share of lunchtime visits fell while the share of late afternoon and evening visits increased. But the dramatic jump was in morning visits, which increased from 3.6% in Q3 2019 to 5.3% in Q3 2021. This is all the more impressive given that the brand was essentially a non-player in the breakfast space pre-pandemic. 

As the pandemic upheaved the dining industry, itt seems that Wendy’s decided to take what had previously been an area of weakness and work on turning it into a new strength, rather than to just keep on doing what it had been doing pre-pandemic and hope for the best. As of now, it certainly looks like the gamble paid off. 

Will Wendy’s morning visits continue to rise? Will Burger King, Chick-fil-A, and KFC close their visit gap? 

Visit placer.ai to find out. 

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