Dine-in restau­rants be­gin to see ef­fect of re­open­ing Sales still way down from last year, but they’re climb­ing

Orlando Sentinel - - Business - By Dee-Ann Durbin

Fast-food restau­rants — well equipped for drive-thru and take­out ser­vice — have fared bet­ter than sit-down restau­rants as the coro­n­avirus pan­demic gripped the United States, but that gap could start to close as din­ing rooms re­open.

U.S. cus­tomer trans­ac­tions at full-ser­vice restau­rant chains such as Olive Gar­den and Ap­ple­bee’s plum­meted 79% year over year at the be­gin­ning of April as lock­downs closed din­ing rooms across the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to NPD Group. Fast-food sales were down as well, but by 41%.

A month later, those num­bers are im­prov­ing. For the week end­ing May 10, full-ser­vice restau­rant trans­ac­tions were down 58%, while fast-food sales were down 21%. States with the most din­ing rooms open, like Texas and Ten­nessee, had some of the high­est sales.

Ma­jor chains rep­re­sent 76% of U.S. restau­rant in­dus­try traf­fic, NPD said. In­de­pen­dent restau­rants saw steeper sales de­clines than chains as lock­downs be­gan, and data on their re­cov­ery lags the data avail­able for chains. But many in­de­pen­dent restau­rants are also open­ing their din­ing rooms again.

“Amer­ica is hun­gry to dine out again,” Ap­ple­bee’s Pres­i­dent John Cy­win­ski said. “They’re nat­u­rally cu­ri­ous and cau­tious, but they’re com­ing out.”

Ap­ple­bee’s has opened around 200 of its 1,660 din­ing rooms in the coun­try. Guests are tip­ping gen­er­ously and drink­ing a lot of al­co­hol, Cy­win­ski said, and they’re re­spect­ful of Ap­ple­bee’s pre­cau­tions such as use of dis­pos­able sil­ver­ware and menus.

As of this week, 32 states — mostly in the Mid­west and South — have al­lowed din­ing rooms to open at least par­tially, ac­cord­ing to Brian Vac­caro, an an­a­lyst with Ray­mond James.

Some fast-food restau­rants — which al­ready re­lied more heav­ily on drive-thru and take­out — have been slow to re­open din­ing rooms. McDon­ald’s, which has 14,000 U.S. lo­ca­tions, has only opened around 125 din­ing rooms so far.

Restau­rant Brands In­ter­na­tional, which owns Burger King, Popeyes and Tim

Hor­tons, has opened around 1,500 din­ing rooms, or 15% of its U.S. to­tal. Seats are spaced far­ther than they used to be, and plas­tic di­viders sep­a­rate cus­tomers from cashiers.

Restau­rant Brands CEO Jose Cil says open­ing din­ing rooms helps cus­tomers feel more con­fi­dent as they slowly reestab­lish their rou­tines.

NPD an­a­lyst David Por­ta­latin says full-ser­vice restau­rants have more is­sues than fast-food restau­rants when it comes to re­open­ing din­ing rooms. It costs more to hire back wait­staff, and they may de­cide it’s not worth re­open­ing if they can only al­low in a lim­ited num­ber of guests.

Ap­ple­bee’s says it will keep take­out in place, since de­mand has tripled since the start of the year and in­tro­duced new cus­tomers to the brand. But Cy­win­ski said din­ing rooms will also con­tinue to re­open. The chain hopes 80% of its din­ing rooms will be open by the end of June.

“There’s so much pent-up de­mand,” he said. “It’s a lit­tle in­dul­gence now to hop in your car and ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing that hasn’t been avail­able.”

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