QSR Meal Time Is Now Flex Time

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of QSR Insider.

Consumers have returned to McDonald’s, Chipotle and Panda Express post-pandemic, but many are dining outside of what are considered typical breakfast, lunch and dinner times, per a new study of the three chains by foot traffic analyst firm

McDonald’s previous drop in morning and lunch visits between 2019 and 2021 began a turnaround in 2023, growing from 15.9% to 16.9% YoY, which was perhaps due to some customers returning to the office and hitting the QSR giant on their way into the office or for lunch.

“QSR chains generally remain in a good position relative to the dining industry. They are a more affordable option than other food channels, they've invested more in mobile ordering and drive-thru technologies, they're opening more stores in high growth markets, and many chains have embraced new celebrity partnerships to help drive sales and menu innovation -- like McDonald's Famous Orders,” R.J. Hottovy, head of analytical research at, told QSR Insider.  

Panda Express visits between 11 p.m. to 2 p.m. have essentially returned to pre-pandemic levels. But perhaps more interestingly, midday visits have increased -- while dinner (7-10 P.M.) actually decreased, which may be due in part  to the chain’s recent focus on its family-friendly to-go options, which allow customers to pick up dinner on their way home instead of dining in-store.

“We saw consumers increasingly seek out value the past year, and for many families, Panda Express represents a more affordable option than others in the QSR or fast casual categories,” said Hottovy.

Chipotle lunchtime traffic has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, with the share of visits between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. just 36.2% in 2023 compared to 40.0% in 2019. Yet Chipotle also saw pick up mid-afternoon (3 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and an increase in evening visits, “perhaps driven by the wider QSR trend towards more late-night visits and by some consumers choosing to visit Chipotle for their main meal of the day instead of splurging on an on-the-go lunch” according to the study. 

“Some of the changes we observed with QSR because of nontraditional schedules (late morning coffee visits, afternoon snacking) have held up and also helped to drive visits during other dayparts,” said Hottovy. “Inflation and other macroeconomic pressures have helped to keep QSR visits ahead of other restaurant categories, but we've also seen some QSR customers--particularly lower-income consumers--trade down to dollar stores and value grocers. Afternoon snack visits decreased as a percentage of overall visits compared to 2022, but still remain ahead of pre-pandemic levels, and are representative of changes in consumer behavior.”

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