guestXM – by Black Box Intelligence

Sales Recovery and Rising Guest Satisfaction Add Momentum to Restaurant Industry Rebound

Despite weather setbacks in February, the restaurant industry showcases a rebound, with positive guest sentiment in food and service, particularly in regions like Orlando and New York.

Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot™ – February, 2021

Restaurant sales in February continued showing signs of improvement for the industry and further fueling optimism for continued recovery in 2021. For more on sales, traffic, and workforce trends in February, visit Springtime Stimulus Checks Fuel Sales Optimism for the Restaurant Industry.

Top 5 Restaurant Brands

Harsh winter storms caused havoc in large regions of the country during the second and third weeks of February, severely hurting restaurant sales. Same-store sales were down by more than 40% year over year in Texas during the third week of the month; sales were down by close to 30% in the Southwest region that same week.

However, sales during the rest of the month reflect a performance improvement from the results during the last months of 2020. The industry turned a corner since the first week of the year and is on a new path to recovery.

There is also upward momentum in positive net sentiment for restaurant guests. The percentage of online reviews that were mainly classified as “restaurant food” was 6 percentage points more positive year over year in February. In addition, after a small dip in January, the percentage of these food-centered reviews that were classified as positive was over 50% of the total.

Service sentiment dropped slightly in January compared to the last two months of 2020. As restrictions began lifting again and more people were dining in, there was a small stumble at the beginning of the year. But, by February, the industry corrected course and the percentage of positive service-centered reviews improved by 4.4 percentage points year over year.

Although declining slightly in February, “intent to return” sentiment continues to be relatively strong. Since September 2020, over 60% of these reviews were classified as positive.

Connecting the Dots on Performance

Menu Highlights: What Guests Love at Quick Service and Casual Dining Restaurants

Online “food” reviews have revealed that most guests are satisfied with restaurant meals. But what are the menu items that are driving this positive sentiment the most? Which items are getting the most positive mentions in those reviews? Not surprisingly, the answer to these questions varies widely between the industry’s two largest segments.

Quick Service has been outperforming the industry since the beginning of the pandemic. A big driver behind their superior results is the historically higher mix of off-premise meals, which became a huge strength in the COVID era. “Pizza” from QSR brands generated the most positive online reviews and mentions during January and February. This has typically been a cuisine geared towards off-premise consumption so naturally, it has been thriving in the current environment.

Guest affinity toward “chicken” and the popularity of “chicken sandwiches” came through loud and clear in online guest sentiment. These menu items were the second most mentioned when guests rated positive food experiences at quick service restaurants in the first two months of the year. Rounding off the top in these restaurants we find “fries”, another staple of the QSR menu.

For casual dining restaurants, guest preferences were reflective of the pent-up demand for the full restaurant experience which has been scarce in recent months. “Steak” received the most positive mentions in January and February, an item usually associated with higher price full-service experience and meals on specials.

“Shrimp” was the third most mentioned item with positive sentiment. Like “steak”, it is commonly a higher-ticket menu item. Sales are improving for restaurants and consumers seem to be more optimistic about their outlook. This is reflected in their menu orders and what foods they are highlighting in their reviews.

The online menu also signals guests being more health-conscious at the beginning of a new year as they follow through with their resolutions. “Salads” were the second most positively mentioned item in casual dining during January and February.

Top DMAs

  • Food- Orlando, FL
  • Service- Orlando, FL
  • Intent to Return- New York, NY
  • Beverage- Orlando, FL
  • Ambiance- New York, NY
  • Value- Los Angeles, CA

Bottom DMAs

  • Food- Raleigh, NC
  • Service- Raleigh, NC
  • Intent to Return- Cleveland, OH
  • Beverage- Philadelphia, PA
  • Ambiance- Cleveland, OH
  • Value- Philadelphia, PA

Orlando, Florida was the major metropolitan area with the most positive restaurant sentiment based on “food”, “beverage” and “service” in February. The Orlando market has consistently had the most positive sentiment in multiple attributes of the restaurant experience. What is more interesting, perhaps, is what happened with the other three attributes in February.

Among the 25 major markets of the country, New York, Los Angeles, and Sacramento were included in the five with the worst same-store sales growth. But New York and Sacramento had the highest restaurant “intent to return” sentiment. Los Angeles is in the top 7 of markets based on positive sentiment on this key metric. Los Angeles was the major market with the most positive restaurant “value” sentiment, followed by New York.

Despite the steep challenges restaurants face in these markets, many operators are stepping up and meeting their guests’ expectations. This can be a sign of restaurant guests continuing to rally behind restaurants online with positive reviews to help lift them from this crisis. Restaurants in some markets are still behind in the road to bring the full restaurant experience back to their guests, but better times are ahead for the industry overall.


The Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot (RGSS) is produced by data from Black Box Guest Intelligence™. Guest Intelligence is tracking over 190 brands to benchmark customer satisfaction and is the only online tool that integrates with operational performance data to validate the impact on financial performance. The data set focuses on six key attributes of the restaurant industry experience: food, service, ambiance, beverage, value, and intent to return.
The RGSS algorithm determines the highest-ranking brands based on sentiment. Brands included in this monthly snapshot must have a total of at least 250 mentions for the month. Restaurants must have a minimum number of units to be eligible as well. DMA rankings consider only the largest 25 areas.
Black Box Intelligence™ (formerly TDn2K) is the leading data and insights provider of workforce, guest, consumer, and financial performance benchmarks for the hospitality industry. The Black Box Intelligence product suite is the industry standard for operators seeking to achieve best-in-class performance results. With the largest and most reliable set of real restaurant data in the marketplace, Black Box Intelligence currently tracks and analyzes nearly 300 brands, 2.4 million employees, 50,000 restaurant units, and $76 billion in annual sales revenue. Black Box Intelligence is also the producer of the Global Best Practices Conference held annually in Dallas, Texas.

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