Welcome to the 16th edition of the PlaceIQ Social Distance Tracker. 

Last month, we hosted a webinar focused on changing behaviors among grocery shoppers. It was well received, so we immediately began planning our next session focusing on the restaurant industry.

There are so many stories taking place in the dining sector. Fast food has emerged as an affordable luxury, a safe option for simply getting out of the house. Casual dining has been a hot topic of the reopening debate, as we consider how dining rooms can be reconfigured to reopen – for example, cities/towns shutting down streets to allow for more outdoor seating. There’s a work-from-home angle in the dining story as well: commutes have vanished, removing a daily routine that once drove restaurant traffic like clockwork.

Keep your eyes peeled for the details on our upcoming dining webinar.  In preparation, today we are taking a look at how fast food restaurant visitation is varying by hour and day. Without a commute, the sector is in flux.

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The Case of the Missing Meals

You may recall that when we recently examined grocery shopping behaviors, we noted that consumers were shopping more evenly throughout the weekday. Without commutes and the constraints of the office, and in the presence of a desire to socially distance, the usual rush hour surge spread throughout the day into a nearly even bell curve:

CHART: Trader Joe's Share of Traffic by Hour, Monday-Friday

Removing commutes affects fast food restaurants differently. Fast food traffic was much more reliant on commutes to drive the breakfast and lunch rush. Without offices to go to, these meals nearly vanish:

CHART: Thursday and Saturday Traffic by Hour of Day: McDonald's

Compare the Thursday snapshot (left) to Saturday (right). 

On weekends traffic is simply down, almost evenly, throughout the day. Each phase is a shadow of our Pre-COVID past, with reemergence inching these restaurants back to usual traffic.

But on weekdays the traffic is completely refigured. The multi-hour dinner rush is absent. Traffic heads steadily downwards after lunch. Only recently, during reemergence, is dinnertime starting to take shape again. Morning coffee stops are gone. 

The pattern is the same for many venues. Here’s Chick fil A:

Weekday Traffic Changes Drastically When People Aren’t Driving to and from Workplaces

CHART: Thursday and Saturday Traffic by Hour of Day: Chick fil A

Without commutes, fast food restaurants have lost their weekday rhythm.

The issue goes beyond the hourly routine. It’s visible when we look at weekday breakdowns as well:

CHART: McDonald's Visitation by Day of Week

This figure isn’t as dramatic as the previous plots, but we’re zoomed further out. A drop of 13%+ during the Quarantine Routine, compared to pre-COVID norms, is very significant. Reemergence is lessening the severity of this new distribution, but the changes are still there. 

The one exception within the fast food sector are pizza restaurants. These venues were traditionally less dependent on lunch and vacant during breakfast (if they were even open). Their weekdays are unaffected by the absence of a commute:

Pizza Restaurant Dinner Traffic has Declined, But All Other Hours are Only Slightly Off

CHART: Thursday Traffic by Hour of Day: Papa John's and Domino's

All of this illustrates the complexity of reemergence. Even if traffic returns to your restaurants, it may remain significantly different compared to pre-COVID routines. One thing is unmistakable: traffic to fast food is back:

CHART: Dining is Reemerging, But Office Buildings and Public Transit Remain Mostly Empty

Fast food restaurants are the first of the categories we’re tracking that has returned to, or exceeded, pre-COVID norms. (If you don’t count nature and outdoors, but that’s another story.) But, as long as foot traffic to office buildings and public transit hubs remains lagging behind everything else, traffic to fast food restaurants will remain fundamentally different. Spoiler alert: offices show no signs of reemerging at this time. Read our blog on Dynamic Trade Areas to understand how you can measure the work-from-home impact on your different locations. 

As always, thanks for joining us today. If you have any questions or comments, please send them our way. We enjoy hearing from you.

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