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NPD: Visits to fast-casual restaurants rebound

A renewed emphasis on off-premises services is paying off for the nation’s fast-casual restaurants.

Fast-casual restaurants didn’t fare as well as traditional quick-service ones early in the pandemic, but their customers are returning, reported The NPD Group. Online and physical visits to fast-casual outposts in the year ending August 2021 were up 8% compared to a year ago, which keeps traffic on par or flat to pre-pandemic visits in August 2019. In the quarter ending June 2020, at the height of pandemic lockdowns and restaurant restrictions, fast-casual visits were down 23% compared to the prior year, according to NPD’s daily tracking of the U.S. restaurant industry.

Many 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 said.

Since the early months of the pandemic, those fast-casual restaurants that saw declines early in the pandemic have put more focus on their off-premises operations and have plans 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% over a year ago. Within the fast-casual sector, off-premises traffic went from being just over half of its traffic pre-pandemic to over 80% of traffic in the year ending August 2021.

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

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