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10/15/2021

Fast Casual Visits Begin to Rebound From Pandemic Slump

Online and physical visits to fast-casual restaurants for the year ending August 2021 were up 8 percent compared to a year ago.

CHICAGO — Although fast casual restaurants didn't fare as well as traditional quick-service restaurants early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the channel is seeing its customers come back.

Online and physical visits to fast casual restaurants for the year ending August 2021 were up 8 percent compared to a year ago, which keeps traffic on par or flat to pre-pandemic visits in August 2019, according to The NPD Group's daily tracking of the restaurant industry. For the quarter ending June 2020, at the height of pandemic lockdowns and restaurant restrictions, fast casual visits were down 23 percent vs. the previous year.

Generally, fast casual restaurants lacked the drive-thru capabilities and off-premises operational efficiencies of traditional quick-service restaurants early in the pandemic. However, fast casual chains that had a solid off-premises business before the pandemic grew traffic and traffic share during this time, NPD found, adding that these operators plan to add or expand drive-thru operations.

As a result of these and other efforts, fast casual off-premises orders in the year ending August 2021 increased by 30 percent over one year ago. Within fast casual, off-premises traffic grew from just more than half of its traffic pre-pandemic to more than 80 percent of traffic in the year ending August 2021.

"Fast casual restaurants have capitalized on the lessons they learned during the pandemic," said David Portalatin, author of "Eating Patterns in America" and NPD food industry advisor. "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."

Chicago-based NPD Group offers data, industry expertise and prescriptive analytics to help clients grow their businesses in a changing world.