The restaurant industry in the United States ended 2021 better off than the year began, even as the pandemic, labor shortages and rising costs continued to create headwinds for operators.
Online and physical visits to restaurants increased by 9% in the year ended Dec. 31, 2021, compared to a 12% decline in 2020, according to data from The NPD Group. Traffic was still down 4% compared to the pre-pandemic year ended Dec. 31, 2019.
Major restaurant chains, which hold the largest share of traffic at 77%, saw online and physical visits grow 7% in 2021, which was down 2% from 2019. Year-over-year traffic at independent restaurants and smaller chains grew by 12% and 13%, respectively, but was still down 9% from 2019.
Online and physical visits to quick-service restaurants, which represent 82% of all restaurant orders, increased by 7% in 2021 compared to 2020 but were down 1% compared to 2019. Visits to full-service restaurants, which represent 18% of all restaurant orders, grew by 18% in 2021 over a 29% decline in 2020 but were down 16% from 2019.
Delivery orders grew 17% in 2021 over an 89% gain in 2020. Despite substantial growth since the pandemic, delivery represents the smallest share of off-premises modes at 11%, according to The NPD Group. Drive-thru visits, which account for 52% of off-premises traffic, grew 4% year-over-year. Carryout visits, which account for 37% of off-premises traffic, grew 2% year-over-year.
Digital orders placed through an app or website increased by 13% in 2021 compared to a 100% increase in 2020, while 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,” says David Portalatin, food industry adviser at The NPD Group. “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.”