guestXM – by Black Box Intelligence

Restaurant Food and Service Sentiment Improving As Traffic Woes Continue

In March 2022, restaurant industry sales growth slowed to 7.1% from the previous month's 21.2%, while guest sentiment improved notably in food and service. Top-performing brands excelled in service and beverage sentiment, driving their higher sales growth.

Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot™ – March, 2022

The restaurant industry continues to post growth year over year, but the rate slowed down considerably during March as the industry is starting to lap throughout accelerated recovery last year. This time last year is when vaccines became more available and another round of stimulus payments helped unleash some pent-up demand. Sales growth was 7.1% during March, compared to 21.2% in February.

Guest counts have not been able to keep up. Traffic growth became negative in March at -1.7%, down from 8.1% the previous month. The rapid rise in average guest checks remains a challenge for restaurant guests, as they face historically high inflation rates during the month. The segments with the largest increase in average check year over year were fast casual and quick service.

A bright spot for restaurants has been improving guest sentiment, which rebounded strongly in Q1 compared to the previous quarter. Food net sentiment* has improved slowly over the last few months. March 2022 had the strongest food net sentiment since June of last year.

The guest sentiment is improving for restaurant service as well. Even though service net sentiment slipped slightly in March compared to the previous two months, in the first three months of 2022 restaurants posted the strongest service sentiment since November of 2020.

Connecting the Dots on Performance

Top DMAs

  • Food- Orlando, FL
  • Service- Orlando, FL
  • Intent to Return- Houston, TX
  • Beverage- Orlando, FL
  • Ambiance- Orlando, FL
  • Value- Orlando, FL

Bottom DMAs

  • Food- San Francisco, CA
  • Service- San Francisco, CA
  • Intent to Return- San Francisco, CA
  • Beverage- Charlotte, NC
  • Ambiance- Charlotte, NC
  • Value- San Francisco, CA


The first quarter of 2022 was tough for the restaurant industry from a sales and traffic growth perspective relative to previous quarters. However, some brands continue to thrive in this environment and are experiencing significantly better results than the rest. Full-service restaurant companies in the top quartile of sales growth performance achieved sales growth in Q1 which was almost 17 percentage points higher than the median growth experienced by the rest of the industry. Limited-service brands in the top half of sales performance had sales growth 11 percentage points better than those in the bottom half.

What attributes of the restaurant experience did these top-performing brands excel at the most in differentiating themselves from the rest of their competitors? The results were consistent. For both full-service and limited-service brands, the biggest differences in guest sentiment were driven by service and beverage sentiment.

RGSS Top Performers Differentiated On: Full Service - 1st Beverage 2nd Service vs. Limited Service Restaurants - 1st Service 2nd Beverage
*Net sentiment represents the percentage of positive mentions minus the percentage of negative mentions in online restaurant reviews.

Other factors are important to a restaurant’s success, but frequently it all comes down to execution at the unit level, driven by staff providing a perceptibly better experience to their guests in a few key areas. For the first three months of 2022, those key areas were service and beverages.

In the case of full-service brands, top performers based on sales growth had service net sentiment that was 20 points better than the rest of the brands. They are providing a superior guest experience from a service standpoint, and their guests perceive the difference and talk about it online. But interestingly, more than food, the area in which they separated themselves the most after service was beverage sentiment. The norm is still for beverage sales growth to be negative relative to the pre-pandemic days, but top-performing brands are growing their alcohol sales and part of their success is through meeting and exceeding guest expectations in this area.

For limited-service restaurants, the gap in sentiment between those in the top half of sales performance and those in the bottom is much smaller and guest sentiment tends to be lower overall. But guests of those top-performing brands rated their beverages more positively by 5 points, while their service had a net sentiment of 3 points higher than for those with weaker sales growth.

RGSS March 2022 - Food, Service, and Intent to Return.
*Financial metrics are “same-store” metrics & reported on a 1-year comparison unless otherwise noted

Subscribe to our Out of the Box Insights

Our monthly update providing data and insights for the restaurant industry.