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Dining out: US restaurant traffic plummets on coronavirus fears, restrictions

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Dining out: US restaurant traffic plummets on coronavirus fears, restrictions

Traffic to restaurants in the U.S. and other countries fell drastically during the first two weeks of March as fears over the coronavirus forced many dining rooms to close and government officials pleaded with consumers to stay home.

The number of seated diners in restaurants around the world, including the United States, has more than halved as of March 16 versus a year ago, according to reservation platform OpenTable. The steep drop in traffic to restaurants signals a potentially dramatic turn in the overall trend for the industry. February marked the sixth straight month of stronger growth for restaurants than the broader retail sector, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Widespread closures and fears of a pandemic-sparked recession dragged on share prices for the largest publicly traded restaurant stocks, in line with broader pain roiling global markets.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus as he and some states pushed restaurants and bars to close. Meanwhile, restaurant inflation remained steady during February.

From soup to nuts

Seated diners dropped by 56% as of March 16 in the U.S. and globally from the same time last year, according to data from OpenTable. In the U.S., traffic to restaurants was generally steady throughout February but began trending down in March as news and restrictions related to the coronavirus spread, according to the data.

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Traffic dropped by 84% in the U.S. on March 17, reflecting a widespread pullback from normally busy St. Patrick's Day celebrations at bars and restaurants.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is forcing many U.S. restaurants to restrict their operations to takeout and delivery as consumers are pressured to avoid going out to eat and risk spreading the disease.

"We expect a sharp deceleration in restaurant sales in the months ahead," said Jake Bartlett, a SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst, in a March 17 note.

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McDonald's Corp. said March 16 it was shifting to drive-thru, delivery and takeout options for most of its markets. On the same day, Trump recommended all Americans avoid going to bars, restaurants and public food courts for 15 days as multiple states pushed eateries to close their dining rooms indefinitely. Starbucks Corp. said March 15 it would temporarily close some company-owned stores in the U.S. and Canada, and Dunkin' Brands Group Inc. U.S. locations are reducing hours, which are limited to drive-thru and carry-out orders.

"We're focused on making your experience as frictionless as possible," Dunkin' CEO David Hoffman wrote in a March 16 letter addressed to the public.

Some public officials want more companies to follow suit and are not waiting around to see if they do.

On March 17, Florida's governor issued an executive order restricting by half the occupancies for restaurant locations and ordering bars to close for 30 days. New York said March 16 that dine-in service across the state would stop indefinitely, but restaurants and bars could sell items for off-premises consumption. San Francisco on March 16 ordered residents to stay home unless it is essential to leave.

Canada had a 94% drop in seated diners on March 17 from the same time a year ago, and Australia recorded a 43% drop, according to OpenTable.

Sales growth slows

Before the slowdown, sales at food services and drinking venues grew 5.2% from the year-ago period in February to a seasonally adjusted $65.81 billion, according to U.S. Census Bureau advance monthly sales estimates released March 17.

The category includes bars and eateries such as Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and Texas Roadhouse Inc. All retail sales grew 4.3% from the year-ago period in February, up from the 2.2% growth posted in February 2019.

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February extended the trend of bar and restaurant sales, growing faster than the growth of the broader retail sector.

Still, the growth marked a slowing down compared with January's gains. Food services and drinking places sales in January grew 6.8% to $66.11 billion on a preliminary basis, which is down from a previous estimate of 7.4% year-over-year growth. December's food services and drinking places grew a revised 5.8% to $65.62 billion, down from a previous estimate of 6.1% year-over-year growth.

Tough to swallow

The 15 largest publicly traded U.S. restaurants posted stock losses in the month ended March 16.

More broadly, the S&P Composite 1500 Restaurants subindex fell 34.9%, and the S&P Composite 1500 index fell 30.1%. The poor performance of restaurant stocks has been driven by increased fears of risk from a larger-scale outbreak in the U.S. of COVID-19, Credit Suisse analyst Lauren Silberman wrote in a March 6 note.

"Restaurants are more susceptible to in-store traffic declines as consumers look to reduce contact points, more companies encourage employees to work from home and projects slow," Silberman said. "Restaurants could face supply chain and labor issues and consumers could fear food contamination."

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Darden Restaurants Inc.'s shares fell 59.6% for the month ended March 16, marking the biggest swing among the 15 biggest restaurant companies.

The company behind Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse could issue deep near-term earnings revisions in light of the tougher environment for restaurants when the company reports its fiscal third-quarter results March 19, Oppenheimer analyst Brian Bittner wrote in a March 12 research note.

Domino's Pizza Inc.'s shares dropped 1.8% for the month ended March 16, the smallest decline among the 15 biggest restaurant companies. The company should be protected from the worst of the coronavirus by its delivery and carryout business, the health of its franchisees and its model of being mostly franchised, said UBS analyst Dennis Geiger in a March 6 note.

Menu price inflation

Prices for the "food away from home" subcategory of the consumer price index, which measures the costs of everyday goods, grew an unadjusted 3.0% for the 12 months that ended in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Food away from home" covers the average prices for meals ordered at eateries.

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The "food at home" subcategory of the consumer price index, which refers to average prices at grocery stores, grew 0.8% in the 12 months through February.

The consumer price index for full-service meals grew 3.4% over the last 12 months and the index for limited-service meals increased by 2.7%.