The NPD Group, Inc. is reporting that U.S. restaurant units dropped by 4,000 -- or 1% -- between April 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009, according to the company's 2009 Spring ReCount. NPD compiles a census of commercial restaurant locations each spring and fall. The negative trend came on top of zero growth in the year leading up to last spring.
On the flip side, a Technomic Inc. study confirms that the recession-driven uptrend in home entertainment represents a solid opportunity on the catering front for restaurants.
Looking at the industry by size and type of restaurant, independents and minor chains (50 to 99 units) fared the worst, with each losing 2% of total units. Mid-size chains (100 to 499 units) and the smallest chains (3 to 49 units) each lost 1% in units. Only the major chains (500+ units) showed growth, albeit just 1%.
"The recession appears to have weeded out restaurants performing poorly prior to the economic downturn, and this seems most true for independents and smaller chains that are likely having a hard time competing with the resources and marketing power of major chains," summed up Susan Kleutsch, NPD director, product development-foodservice.
Looking at restaurant types, the fine dining segment was hardest-hit overall -- losing 4% in units, although the losses came entirely among independents (down 7%). Mid-size and minor chains each saw 6% unit growth, while small chains had 1% growth. (There are no major chains within the fine dining category.)
Family dining units were down 2% overall, with minor and mid-size chains hardest-hit (-6% and -5%, respectively). Major chains' units were stable.
Restaurant units among quick-serve and casual dining restaurants were also stable on an industry-wide basis. Within the QSR segment, major chains grew 1%, independents declined 2% and all other types of restaurant systems declined 1%.
The growing competition to tap into the industry's relatively healthy casual dining segment was demonstrated, as both mid-size and major chains upped their units by 2%. In the process, they apparently damaged minor and independent casuals, which saw units decline by 2% and 1%, respectively.
Geographically, the hardest-hit U.S. Census region was West North Central, down 2% in units. The least-affected regions -- East South Central, West South Central, Mountain and Pacific -- were flat, not up.
The trend to cheaper, at-home gatherings is obviously one major factor slamming certain types of restaurant categories.
Indeed, Technomic's "POP: Parties Off Premise" study confirms that more than a third (36%) of consumers report that they are entertaining at home more often than a year ago (versus just 13% entertaining less), and that 40% expect to increase entertainment over the coming year.
On the other hand, nimble restaurants and food service businesses can benefit from a "can't beat 'em, then join 'em" strategy. "From box lunches and party platters to parties complete with off-site food preparation, catering is one of the strongest segments of the foodservice industry and appears somewhat immune from recessionary spending cut-backs," note Technomic's analysts.
More than half (53%) of respondents reported buying platters and other prepared foods for this year's Fourth of July, making this the largest-usage holiday after Christmas.
Furthermore, in terms of food sources for at-home entertainment, consumers report using restaurants just about as often as food retailers (68% versus 69%), according to the study.