Black Box Intelligence: Off-premise value sentiment negative, overall restaurant service improved in April
The good news for the restaurant industry is that sales growth continued to be positive in April. The industry experienced a 15-month streak of improving sales year-over-year. The last time industry sales growth was negative was February 2021, when restaurants were coming off a new high in the number of COVID cases at the end of 2020. But the unwelcome news is that the growth rate has been slowing considerably, with April’s 5.3% sales growth the weakest during that same period. Further weakening is expected in the months ahead, as the industry continues lapping over increasingly harder sales hurdles.
The more concerning news for restaurants comes in the form of the persistently eroding guest counts experienced in recent months. Traffic growth was down 2.7% in April, which represented a softening of 1 percentage point compared with March’s growth rate and was the second consecutive month in which traffic growth has been negative year-over-year.
In April, restaurants were able to provide a strong service experience to their guests. Service net sentiment* improved by a healthy 7 percentage points year-over-year during the month. In fact, this month sported the highest service net sentiment since the beginning of 2021. This is welcome news for an industry that has been heavily challenged by staffing difficulties, which have hindered execution since last spring.
Food net sentiment dipped slightly year over year (falling by 0.7 percentage points), but mostly due to a tough comparison from a year ago. In fact, April of 2022 had the second highest guest sentiment for restaurant food since the beginning of 2021; the only month with higher sentiment was April of last year. However, food net sentiment did become 1.2 percentage points more positive during April 2022 relative to the previous month.
Financial metrics are “same-store” metrics & reported on a 1-year comparison unless otherwise noted.
*Net sentiment represents the percentage of positive mentions minus the percentage of negative mentions in online restaurant reviews.
Value guest sentiment is negative for off-premises offerings, much lower than for dine-in
It’s no secret that prices in the overall economy are growing at an exorbitant rate and are erasing the gains made by consumers through rapid wage increases. Restaurants have been no exception, and the biggest concern is that the extraordinary rises in menu prices are far from over. According to a recent poll conducted by Black Box Intelligence™, 45% of restaurant operators estimated that their menu prices would be at least 7% higher by the end of 2022 compared to where they were on average at the end of 2021. An additional 27% of companies are expecting their menu prices to go up between 5% and 7% by the end of the year.
With prices increasing at such an accelerated rate, consumers are undoubtedly feeling the pressure and beginning to make purchasing decisions based on the associated impact on their budgets. Throughout the pandemic, value sentiment reduced in its relative importance, as guests focused on other areas of the restaurant experience as key drivers behind their dining preferences. But that is soon likely to change.
One of the interesting new dynamics around value guest sentiment is happening around off-premises, which has increased its relative importance for most restaurants as its share of total restaurant sales has maintained at higher levels than they had pre-COVID. Value net sentiment is much lower for off-premises offerings than for dine-in, which means overall value net sentiment scores are being brought down by the larger off-premises activity.
In the case of full-service restaurants, value net sentiment is 12% for dine-in meals. For those purchased for off-premises consumption, value net sentiment drops to -37%, a dramatic drop of almost 50 percentage points. For limited-service brands, value sentiment was negative even for dine-in as of Q1 2022 at -7%, but guests were a lot more negative when rating value they obtained through the off-premises channels. Off-premises value net sentiment was -32%, a significant decline of 25 percentage points compared to dine in.
What are some of the factors behind the extremely negative value sentiment assigned to off-premises restaurant meals? In the case of delivery, the presence of delivery fees may be a driver of some of this value sentiment erosion. Those meals would become more expensive once delivered than the equivalent being picked up from or consumed at the restaurant. But more than anything, it is the fact that food sentiment is also much lower for off-premises offerings that is driving down the value scores. Guests frequently complain about cold food, incorrect orders and long wait times when ordering through off-premises channels. They are aware that they are paying much more for those meals than they did a few months ago and are quick to point out when the meals they are receiving do not satisfy their expectations. With higher price tags, expectations also tend to rise. Value is much more than just price; it is relative to what you get for the money you are paying. In the case of off-premises, what you get may not be as good as what you get by dining in from a food and service experience, and the expectations may simply be higher given the money being spent across all channels.
Regional & market performance
Guests in Orlando, Fla., exhibited the most positive sentiment for chain restaurants across several key attributes. During April, this metropolitan area topped the list based on most positive food, ambiance and value sentiment. Raleigh, N.C., was the most positive market for service and intent to return, while Houston was the designated market area with the strongest beverage sentiment.
Beyond Orlando, the major markets that had the highest net sentiment for restaurant food during the month were Raleigh, Tampa, Fla., Indianapolis and Houston. The markets at the top of the list for most positive service sentiment behind Raleigh were Orlando, Tampa, Houston and Charlotte, N.C.
On the other hand, major markets on the West Coast posted the lowest sentiment scores across most of the attributes of the restaurant experience. San Francisco had the lowest net sentiment for food, service and intent to return, while Sacramento was at the bottom of the list for ambiance. Seattle was the DMA with the lowest beverage sentiment.
California, especially, has exhibited lower net sentiment scores than other areas of the country. In fact, all three major DMAs with the lowest restaurant food net sentiment are in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.
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.