Overall U.S. Restaurant Traffic Declined by 22% in March

Digital orders

CHICAGO — With the overwhelming majority (97 percent) of U.S. restaurants impacted by mandatory dine-in closures by mid-March, that month saw a corresponding drop in customers.

Restaurant traffic declined 22 percent in March compared to the same month one year ago, reported The NPD Group.

Despite the overall drop, however, digital restaurant orders rose 63 percent and delivery rose 67 percent in March, serving as a testament to American consumers' desire for someone else to make their meals, according to NPD's CREST tracking service.

Visits to quick-service restaurants (QSRs), many of which already had off-premise options such as carry-out and drive-thru, declined 19 percent but also made up the majority of gains in digital and delivery orders.

Additionally, drive-thru QSR visits fell 3 percent, but family or larger party size visits boosted dollars up by 2 percent, while the average eater check increased 5 percent, NPD found.

Full-service restaurants were already challenging prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and saw traffic decline 35 percent in March. Prior to the outbreak, on-premise traffic share represented 80 percent of their business with off-premise making up just 20 percent. Full-service restaurants able to offer carry-out and delivery lifted the segment's off-premise traffic share by 31 percent, and the average check size rose by 15 percent.

"Our March results only show a portion of the significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the U.S. restaurant industry," said David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America. "Although it's fact that a larger portion of food and beverage consumption has shifted to in-home, it's clear that consumers are not willing to give up on the convenience and experience a restaurant meal brings to them and their families regardless of the barriers."