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10/19/2021

STUDY: Fast Casual Restaurant Visits Rebound

U.S. fast casual restaurants didn’t fare as well as traditional quick service restaurants early in the pandemic, but their customers are returning, reports The NPD Group.
Anna Wolfe
Senior Editor - Restaurants
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U.S. fast casual restaurants didn’t fare as well as traditional quick service restaurants early in the pandemic, but their customers are returning, reports The NPD Group.

Online and physical visits to fast casual restaurants in the year ending August 2021 were up +8% compared to a year ago, which keeps traffic on par or flat to pre-pandemic visits in August 2019. In the quarter ending June 2020, at the height of pandemic lockdowns and restaurant restrictions, fast casual visits were down -23% compared to the prior year, according to NPD’s daily tracking of the restaurant industry.

Generally, fast casual restaurants lacked the drive-thru capabilities and off-premises operational efficiencies of traditional quick service restaurants early in the pandemic.

 

[75% of customers prefer to order delivery direct through the restaurant, according to HT's 2021 Customer Engagement Technology Study.]

However, fast casual chains that had a solid off-premises business before the pandemic grew traffic and traffic share during this time. Since the early months of the pandemic, those fast casual restaurants that saw declines early in the pandemic have put more focus on their off-premises operations, and many have plans to add or expand drive-thru operations.

Restaurant brands of all sizes have been leaning into drive-thrus. 31% of restaurants are adopting drive-thrus in 2021 with 13% adding them for the first time, according to HT's 2021 Restaurant Technology Study.  As a result of these and other efforts, fast casual off-premises orders in the year ending August 2021 increased by +30% over a year ago. Within fast casual, off-premises traffic went from being just over half of its traffic pre-pandemic to over 80% of traffic in the year ending August 2021.

“Fast casual restaurants have capitalized on the lessons they learned during the pandemic,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Their customers are happy to return because so many fast casual restaurants have built a strong clientele based on their innovation and ability to deliver a quality customer experience.”