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According to a recent article from Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), 2023 saw QSRs outpacing full-service restaurants. Post-pandemic after-effects and inflation have skewed the conversation about what types of restaurants diners are choosing. As NRN says, “the narrative about traffic, or visits, has become a bit bifurcated. A new whitepaper from traffic analytics company Placer.ai finds that the quick-service and fast casual segments have experienced year-over-year increases in visits every quarter since Q1 2023, albeit with signs of slowing. Q1 2023 visits in these segments were up by over 7%, for instance, but just 2.1% in Q1 2024.”

Full-service restaurants have also experienced growth in the last year, suggestive of a post-pandemic return to “normal” and diner confidence in eating out again, whether for a quick bite or a full experience. QSRs profits have marginally outgrown the success of sit-down full service establishments, likely due to convenience factors. “Placer.ai suggests that QSRs specifically have benefited from speed of service, pointing to throughput improvements at chains like Taco Bell, Wendys, and Chick-fil-A as examples.” Post-pandemic habits aren’t just about a return to normal dining, but full normal activity—diners are busy again and need their food accessible, quick, and reliable. 

In the wake of Covid restrictions, QSR’s weren’t just quick about food, but quick to readjust marketing and customer service in order to fulfill the needs of a changed target audience. Technological improvements and drive-thru upgrades were popular in 2023, improving the customer experience. As NRN notes, there also were highly-focused product and marketing campaigns that rallied diners around a particular menu or experience:

Another factor potentially playing into QSRsand fast casualsfavor is the heavy presence of chicken concepts; in Q1 2024, 15.3% of fast casual and QSR visits were to a chicken-based concept, versus 13.4% in Q1 2029. This growth is also reflected in new Technomic Ignite data, which found the chicken category overall experienced a double-digital sales increase in 2023 versus 2022. Both Raising Canes and Wingstop experienced sales growth of over 20%, for example, while Chick-fil-As sales were up nearly 15% year-over-year and have risen by over 43% since 2021.

Inflation and increased pricing may also have an impact on this growth. With rising costs of food—and everything else—diners are spending money out, but they’re doing so cautiously. According to Restaurant Dive, “31% say a price hike would significantly impact their choice to dine at a particular restaurant.” With food inflation relief on the horizon, diners may find confidence returning to full-service dining experiences with carefully managed menu pricing.

The difference between retail and the food service pricing gap has closed,” notes Richard Weil, principal and owner of National Restaurant Consultants (NRC). “Since 2021, consumers have witnessed pricing increases grocery prices and in eating away from home. Operators must continue to monitor their menus in terms of price points and price value relationships, cautious of  price-scaring customers.”

There is an industry shift in the air, and restauranteurs should be prepared accordingly. As summer months approach and spending habits are adjusted for the season and the belief that some inflation relief is in sight, owner-operators can make menu adjustments to attract guests in this frame of mind. Working with a restaurant consultant is the ideal way to prepare for this shifting consumer psychology and to engineer menus appropriately.

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