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Restaurant Diners’ Habits Reflect Improving Economy

Great news: The New York Times reported last month that restaurant diners are now eating more at sit-down restaurants, complete with waiters and all, rather than at fast-food places. What’s great about that? It’s a strong indication that the economy is improving, and that things are on its way back to normal times.

In the past twelve months through January, it has been reported that sales at full-service restaurants are 8.7% higher than what was reported in the previous twelve months. That is the highest speed of growth that restaurants had since the late 1990s, back when the economy was flourishing. This pace is also seen to be a lot greater than the sales growth of limited-service restaurants the past year.

So really, tough times do not mean that the people do not eat out–they only tend to cut back. They make an annual spend of around $220 billion at full-service restaurants, $211 billion at limited-service joints, and $21 billion at drinking places, or bars.

And in a separate press release from Chicago foodservice consultancy firm Technomic, details were given how the top 500 U.S. limited-service restaurant chains showed a 3.4% sales increase last year, a strong improvement over 1.8% from 2010. Its system-wide sales grew to approximately $242 billion in 2011, an increase of over $8 billion over 2010.

Growth came from Starbucks’ efficient sales of coffee and tea (7.5%), Subway’s gourmet chefs in excellent chef trousers preparation of healthy sandwiches (7.5%) and Chipotle Mexican Grill’s Mexican dishes (23.4%). And if we talk about size, McDonald’s still holds the throne as the largest restaurant chain in America, followed by Subway and trailed by Starbucks, Wendy’s and Burger King.

Bakery café chains, such as Panera Bread which grew by 10.1%, also represented another limited-service sub-segment that had above-average sales growth. A stand-out is Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which had an amazing sales increase of 32.8%.

Among the fastest growing chains, Five Guys Burger and Fries, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich Shop, Yard House and Firehouse Subs turned out the forerunners.

Consistent with the figures that the New York Times released, Technomic also reported that full-service restaurants indeed experienced a substantial sales growth in 2011, with steak and seafood categories leading the pack. Longhorn Steakhouse had an increase of 13.1%, Texas Roadhouse had 9.2%, while Red Lobster, with the help of their able chefs in comfortable chef trousers, was able to outperform the average, showing a 6.2% sales bump.