The recent positive restaurant sales trajectory stalled in August, likely reflecting an erosion of consumer confidence as a result of the delta variant. Eating and drinking places* registered total sales of $72.0 billion on a seasonally-adjusted basis in August, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That was essentially unchanged from July’s downward-revised sales volume, and came on the heels of five consecutive months of robust growth.

The August sales report confirms a recent survey which found that 6 in 10 adults changed their restaurant usage as a result of the increase in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant. Significantly, 1 in 5 adults said they completely stopped going out to restaurants due to the delta variant, according to this nationwide survey conducted August 13-15 for the National Restaurant Association by Engine.

It wasn’t as though consumers completely buckled up their pocketbooks in August. Excluding eating and drinking places, total retail sales were up 0.8% from July. This included solid sales gains at non-store retailers (+5.3%), furniture and home furnishing stores (+3.7%), general merchandise stores (+3.5%) and building material and supply stores (+0.9%).

Pulse of the consumer

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, consumers’ pent-up demand for on-premises dining is finally approaching pre-COVID levels. 

Forty-seven percent of adults say they are not eating at restaurants as often as they would like, according to a nationwide survey conducted September 10-12 for the National Restaurant Association by Engine. That was roughly on par with the 45% of consumers who reported similarly in January 2020 before the pandemic. 

Still, the fact that nearly one-half of adults would like to dine out more frequently means the recent upward sales trend potentially has more room to run. 

On the off-premises side, 32% of adults say they are not ordering takeout or delivery from restaurants as often as they would like. That’s 12 percentage points below the January 2020 level, which illustrates the extent to which the added off-premises options have been integrated into consumers’ daily lives during 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.