NPD: Restaurant industry will recover 98% of pre-pandemic orders by yearend

Marianne Wilson
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Quick-service restaurant visits represented 82% of all restaurant orders in 2021.

Things are looking up for the beleaguered restaurant industry.

Despite facing a host of headwinds that included the continuing pandemic, labor shortages and rising costs, the industry ended the year 2021 better off than the year began, according to The NPD Group. Restaurant visits (online and physical) increased by 9% in 2021 compared to a 12% decline in 2020. Although traffic is still down 4% compared to the pre-pandemic year ending December 2019, the restaurant industry is making some headway against the headwinds, NPD said.

Major restaurant chains, which hold the largest traffic share at 77%, grew online and physical visits by 7% in 2021 compared to the same period a year ago, which is a 2% decline from 2019.

Independent restaurants and smaller chains, making up the remainder of visit share, increased online and physical traffic by 12% and 13%, respectively, in 2021 over a year ago. Both independents and smaller chains are down 9% from 2019.

Quick-service restaurant (QSR) visits, which represented 82% of all restaurant orders in 2021, increased by 7% in 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. Traffic was down 1% compared to the year ending December 2019.

Full-service restaurant visits, representing 18% of restaurant industry orders, grew by 18% last year, over a 29% decline ending December 2020 and 16% below traffic in the year ending December 2019.

Restaurant delivery, which grew by triple digits over the past two years, increased visits by 17% in 2021 over an 89% gain in the 2020 12-month period. Despite substantial growth since the pandemic, delivery represents the smallest traffic share of off-premises modes at 11%.

Drive-thru, which increased visits by 4% year-over-year, holds the largest share at 52%. Carry-out represented 37% of orders, which grew by 2% in the year ending December 2021 over last year.

Digital orders placed through an app or website increased by 13% last year compared to a 100% increase in 2020, and non-digital orders grew by 8% in 2021 over a 19% decline in 2020.

"Restaurant recovery continues on a year-over-year basis, especially compared to last year," said David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of “Eating Patterns in America.” “The industry's recovery isn't going to be a straight line moving upward based on the nearly two years of the pandemic so far; it's going to be bumpy. That said, restaurant traffic should recover 98% of 2019 visits by the end of 2022.”