Welcome to the 14th edition of the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker.  

For many of us, picking up food from restaurants has become a form of entertainment. It’s a reason to leave the house, an opportunity to avoid yet another night of dishes, and a welcome change of scenery. Restaurant pick-up has become an event. We’re hearing that many are making excuses to drive further, sometimes more than an hour, just to shake things up a bit (we get it – we’ll take what we can get). 

All of this is why we pay close attention to visits to restaurants. They’ve proven themselves a proxy for measuring pent-up people’s desire to get out and about. Fast Food foot traffic in particular is our ‘green shoot’ for reemergence. These venues are open, widely known as take-out options, and safe to frequent. They’re also affordable, something that especially matters these days. Unlike grocery or big box stores, they’re still a shelter-in-place treat. Visiting a grocery store can get you food for a couple weeks. A restaurant gets you only a night or two. It’s a quarantine extravagance

Today we’ll be exploring the reemergence of restaurant visits: why is there so much nuance behind simple visit counts? Follow us today and see how our ongoing reemergence is very much regional — something which must be observed at the local level.

We are gratified to see our analyses being included in various reports, since it is our goal to contribute to the #dataforgood effort. If you choose to re-use one of our analysis, all we ask is that you attribute the analysis or content to PlaceIQ. Thank you!

What Can We Learn from Fast Food?

Foot traffic to fast food venues has been staging a comeback since Easter. For nearly two and a half weeks, traffic has been below pre-COVID norms by only single digits.

CHART: Fast Food Foot Traffic Compared to Pre-COVID Norms

Its rise since Easter (4/12) has been steady and measured. This slow climb over more than a month has been consistent enough in all essential business categories to christen it the Reemergence Ramp. You can see it quite clearly across all dining categories:

CHART: Change in Foot Traffic to Restaurants vs. Pre-COVID Norms

But, this fast food figure is deceptive. Both of the above charts reflect national trends. And as we’ve continually written: while we sheltered in place as a nation, we’re reemerging as regions. Fast food is up, surely, but the magnitude of its recovery varies wildly by county:

 

Fast Food Dining Foot Traffic, Year Over Year Change By County

CHART: Fast Food Dining Foot Traffic, Year Over Year Change By County
Chart Key

Produced by PlaceIQ 5/19/20. Reflecting data from the week of 4/20/20.

This plot is a new view of the data, so let’s first get you situated. Each gray circle represents fast food foot traffic in a county for the week. The higher a dot is placed, the greater the county’s fast food foot traffic is relative to the same week last year. If a dot is larger it represents a larger amount of absolute visits. Large dots correspond with large, populous counties and small dots correspond with more rural areas. Counties are grouped into columns, for each of the ten states we highlight here.

The first major takeaway here is how wide the recovery range is within states. In California, San Francisco county is down more than 60% year-over-year, while Lake County is up 14%. Scroll back up to our national chart, where traffic is within spitting distance of pre-COVID norms and you can see why getting county-level figures is so important. Especially when people are all staying close to home!

That trend is made crystal clear in this plot of our data.

You can see the rural effect quite well here: big places (represented by big dots – predominantly yellow) fall to one side of the key. Small places (represented by small dots – predominantly blue) fall to the other.

CHART: Year Over Year Foot Traffic Change
Chart Key

Data for the week of 4/20/20.

And these insights hold for casual and fast casual dining as well:

 

Casual Dining Foot Traffic, Year Over Year Change By County

CHART: Casual Dining Foot Traffic, Year Over Year Change By County

Fast Casual Dining Foot Traffic, Year Over Year Change By County

CHART: Fast Casual Dining Foot Traffic, Year Over Year Change By County

In sum, we can see dining (especially fast food) is slowly climbing up the Reemergence Ramp. But, the recovery is significantly varied across regions, even within states. To best prepare and allocate resources appropriately, detailed data is a must.

Shortly, we’ll be diving into some of the extreme outliers on these plots. The counties whose fast food traffic is surging compared to last year. There’s an interesting story there our data scientists are currently exploring, one that has to do with vacation homes and lake houses.

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions or comments. We enjoy hearing from you.

Traffic metrics for retail, auto, pharmacy, work life, and more are available for download below.

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