- Foot traffic analysis from Placer.ai from the last three months shows that 28 of the top casual dining chains are returning to pre-COVID-19 levels. Monthly visits in April, May and June were down 10.4%, 7.8% and 3.8%, respectively, compared to the same period in 2019. Placer.ai notes that if this trajectory continues in the segment, casual dining visits will rebound fully as soon as the end of summer.
- Some brands have already matched or exceeded 2019 levels, including Darden Restaurants' brands, Texas Roadhouse, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar and The Cheesecake Factory. Darden's Longhorn Steakhouse and The Capital Grille both exceeded 2019 visits by about 19% in June, while its Eddie V's Prime Seafood concept was up by nearly 30%.
- This trend, which follows warmer weather, increased vaccination rates and easing of restrictions, shows a dramatic rebound in traffic from just six months ago. In December, for example, the casual dining sector experienced transaction declines of 30% compared to the QSR segment, which was down just 8%.
Despite this relatively good news, some casual chains aren't recovering as quickly. Placer.ai data points to Chuy's and IHOP for performing worse in June than May when comparing performance to 2019. Additionally, Denny's, BJ's Restaurant, Bonefish Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen and Red Robin all remain down in visits by double-digits compared to 2019.
Placer.ai's data suggests customers are "gravitating towards pricier, more festive restaurants to celebrate the return to normalcy." The higher-priced piece could reflect increased consumer spending power after many Americans paid down debt during the pandemic and collected stimulus checks and child tax credits.
Placer.ai expects this recovery in the casual segment could intensify in the next few months, noting "… casual dining chains still seeing declines could find rebounds, especially those well aligned for the summer and back to school seasons."
The chains that still have catching up to do have made several changes to position themselves for a rebound, as well. Red Robin, for example, recently added three delivery-only brands to its portfolio and is also expanding its partnership with Donatos pizza. Applebee's is also experimenting with virtual brands and ghost kitchens. IHOP has pushed the gas on its off-premise business, which increased by 123.7% in the first quarter of 2021, and is ready to grow its fast casual concept, Flip'd.