U.S. Restaurant Counts Fall For Second Consecutive Year

We often say the restaurant market in the U.S. is “mature.” The NPD Group’s foodservice research practice, based in Rosemont, Ill., released restaurant unit-count data February 24 that clearly supports that characterization. For the second year in a row, the number of total restaurants in the U.S. fell, in spite of 2015 being the best year for commercial foodservice operators since before the Great Recession.

NPD’s ReCount restaurant census data found total units fell 0.6% from September 30, 2015 from the end of September 2014, ending at 629,488. In a similar period from 2013 to 2014, the number of total units fell 1%. And once again, all the decline ’14 to’15 came from shuttered independents; the segment lost 2% of its total net units, ending at 336,545. Chains grew units 1% to end the period with 292,943. Bear in mind that all ReCount unit counts track net changes; an estimated 6% to 8% of restaurants “churn” every year, predominantly among the ranks of independent operators.

“There is still a cautious approach to expansion overall as the restaurant sector continues to recover,” said Greg Starzynski, the director-product management at NPD Foodservice who helps manage ReCount. “Independent restaurants are historically less stable, not having the same resources as chains to get through difficult times.

Among the segments, NPD reported most of the declines in unit counts were among independent casual and fine dining restaurants. While overall restaurant visits in calendar 2015 rose by 700 million, according to NPD’s CREST tracking data, a 1% gain, all that increase was among limited service restaurants, including fast-casual concepts; the latter grew net units by 5% to 19,043 in the September ’14-to-September ’15 period.

Not all supposedly “hot” sub-segments showed unit growth. Scott Hume reported on his burgerbusiness.com website that independent quick-service burger-oriented unit counts fell 4.1%, following a 2.7% increase for the segment fall 2013 to ’14. That seems to suggest that the “better-burger” surge that was a bright spot during much of the post-recession doldrums, has peaked. QSR chain burger unit counts rose 0.6% from fall ’14 to’15.

NPD also noted significant differences in unit trends among the metropolitan regions of the country. In the New York City-Newark-Jersey City metro area, net units fell by 3%. On the other hand, unit counts grew by 2% in both the Dallas-Ft. Worth and Houston metro areas. New unit counts rose 1% in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area and fell by 1% in the Chicago area metro, which includes parts of both Indiana and Wisconsin.

Information on NPD’s ReCount census and the firm’s extensive array of foodservice research can be found at npd.com.

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