Driven by the easing of capacity restrictions, rising vaccination numbers and healthy household balance sheets, consumer spending in restaurants trended steadily higher in recent months.

Eating and drinking places* registered total sales of $67.3 billion on a seasonally-adjusted basis in May, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In nominal terms, May’s eating and drinking place sales surpassed the February 2020 pre-pandemic sales volume of $66.2 billion.

However, after adjusting for menu-price inflation, real eating and drinking place sales remain approximately 3% below pre-pandemic levels. This indicates that the restaurant industry’s recovery from the pandemic is not yet complete, in terms of a return to normal customer traffic levels.

More room to run

With on-premises dining restrictions being lifted across the country, consumers finally have the opportunity to burn off their accumulated pent-up demand for restaurants. Still, a new survey indicates consumers have yet to completely get their fill of restaurants, which means the current positive sales trajectory likely has more room to run.

Fifty percent of adults say they are not eating on premises at restaurants as often as they would like, according to a survey fielded by the National Restaurant Association June 4-6, 2021. That was down significantly from the 83% who reported similarly during the early weeks of the pandemic, but still remained slightly above the January 2020 pre-pandemic level of 45%.

Restaurants across every segment expanded their off-premises options during the pandemic, and consumers embraced these additional points of access. In an Association survey fielded in December 2020, 53% of adults said purchasing takeout or delivery food is essential to the way they live.

As a result, it’s not surprising that only 28% of adults say they are currently not ordering takeout or delivery from restaurants as often as they would like. Increased usage of off-premises foodservice is baked into the cake for many consumers, and this trend is likely to continue well beyond the end of the pandemic.

*Eating and drinking places are the primary component of the U.S. restaurant and foodservice industry, which prior to the coronavirus outbreak generated approximately 75 percent of total restaurant and foodservice sales.

Read more analysis and commentary from the Association's chief economist Bruce Grindy.