guestXM – by Black Box Intelligence

Restaurant Sales Hold Strong in September 2022 Despite Persistent Decline in Guest Counts

The latest industry insights from growing restaurant sales, declining guest count, and customer's perception of food quality and cleanliness.

Sales Growth Remains Robust, But Traffic Woes Persist

Sales growth held strong for the restaurant industry this September – continuing a two-month streak of positive gains after unseasonably low sales growth results in June and July. September same-store sales growth was +5.2%, just a minor dip from the +5.3% reported in August. Steep declines in gas prices and the moderation of inflation rates appear to be the reason behind the bolstered sales growth numbers.

Although those same factors seem to be slowing the erosion of guest counts across nearly all segments in the restaurant industry, guests continue to pull back on spending as their earnings decrease year-over-year (YoY) once adjusted for inflation.

As Black Box Intelligence’s Out-of-the-Box Newsletter has been reporting all year, the decline in guest count continues to be the industry’s biggest headache. September’s traffic numbers won’t offer much relief. Same-store traffic growth fell to -3.6% YoY in September – down -1.9% from August 2022. Though this month’s results are an improvement over the average -4.9% in June and July (a sliver of a silver lining) – this is the seventh month in a row (since March 2022) that same-store traffic growth numbers have been negative.

Segment-to-segment guest count growth performance is reporting much of the same. Except for Fine Dining, all restaurant segments experienced negative same-store traffic growth during Q3 2022.

Black Box Intelligence Analysts lengthened the period on traffic growth data to offer a broader perspective on guest count. The findings reveal that the negative trend in traffic growth goes beyond 2021. Three-year traffic growth rates for most restaurant segments slowed during Q3 2022 compared to Q2. Quick Service and Family Dining were the only two segments to experience improvements in their guest count growth rates – revealing that guests may be trading down to less expensive options when choosing to dine out.

Guest Sentiment Improvements in the Full-Service Dining Experience

The imbalances previously plaguing labor markets as well as the demand for dine-in experiences seem to be right-sizing amidst the current environment’s “norms.” September’s data reflects those subtle shifts in the Full-Service segment with small improvements to overall sentiment. Regarding Service, Q3’s net sentiment improved two percentage points compared with Q2 and seven percentage points YoY.

Indeed, in Q3 guests appear to be pleased with the Full-Service experience compared to the previous quarter’s sentiment results. Guest reviews reveal they are more satisfied with server attentiveness and friendliness compared to last quarter. Guests also report an overall better experience with more mentions of “amazing” service. Most notable was a decrease in negative keywords such as “rude” or “bad” and a reduction in the number of reviews with mentions of wait time complaints – an issue that has haunted understaffed Full-Service brands for much of the year. The number of mentions of restaurants being “understaffed” has also declined.

So, what’s behind the marked change in Full-Service sentiment? The uptick in overall experience could be attributed to a decline – perhaps normalizing – of guest expectations. After all, the staffing crisis and the challenges that come with it are not lost on diners. Another possible factor; there has been an increase in front-of-house employee retention and, compared to last year, a decrease in employee absences due to COVID-19. In other words, FOH employees are showing up and guests are taking notice.

Performance, Guest Sentiments, and the Chicken Conundrum in Q3

Demand remains strong for restaurants with lower price points – even amidst the current inflationary environment. Yet, despite the healthier performance, turnover and brand tenure declined quarter-over-quarter for restaurants in the Limited-Service Segment.

Guest reviews reveal net sentiment for Ambiance fell five percentage points in Q3 compared to last quarter and nine percentage points compared to Q3 2021. The biggest factors responsible for the dip in Ambiance net sentiment include “cleanliness,” particularly the bathrooms, floors, and tables. Q3 guest reviews saw more frequent use of negative terms such as “dirty,” and less positive mentions around terms such as “clean.”

In terms of food, Limited-Service guest review data reveals declines in Flavor and Quality net sentiment. Flavor Sentiment declined five percentage points compared to last quarter – fueled by fewer mentions of “delicious” and “yummy.” Quality declined even further – down seven points – because of fewer and more negative mentions of “fresh.” Interestingly, guests specifically called out issues like “dry bread,” “stale chips,” and most pronounced, “old and dry chicken.”

Chicken deserves additional attention within the Limited-Service Segment. Chicken prices have retreated from the all-time highs they reached over the Summer. The significantly higher prices may have forced some Limited-Service restaurants to change their chicken specs which may have impacted execution in the back-of-house – ultimately leading to guests’ perceived decline in quality.

Unlocking Insights for Building a Competitive Restaurant Workforce

With the labor shortage intensifying and the increased competition for top talent, restaurant operators have been scrambling to understand how best to staff their locations. Our BBI analysts have revealed compelling correlations between compensations and financial performance from the results of our Total Rewards Survey and our latest Workforce Intelligence data. Find out more about the current state of the Restaurant Workforce and how you can take advantage of our data and insights to improve your compensation structure to reduce turnover and become the employer of choice.

Understanding the Out of the Box Insights

    • Financial metrics are based on year-over-year growth unless otherwise noted
    • Off-premise sales include: go (pickup), delivery, and drive-thru (where applicable)
    • Limited service includes quick service, and fast casual
    • Full-service includes casual, family, upscale casual, and fine dining
    • Limited-service segments: quick service and fast casual
    • The Western region does not include California, California as a state is considered its region

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