Restaurant sales posted a modest gain in September

Bolstered by the easing of capacity restrictions, rising vaccination numbers and the reopening of outdoor patios, consumer spending in restaurants trended steadily higher during the spring and summer months.

The positive sales trajectory wasn’t sustainable though, according to most restaurant operators. Nearly 6 in 10 operators said business conditions were worse in September than they were in June, according to a National Restaurant Association survey.

Eating and drinking places* registered total sales of $72.4 billion on a seasonally adjusted basis in September, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That was only slightly higher than the readings of $72.1 billion in July and $72.2 billion in August.

However, in inflation-adjusted terms, eating and drinking place sales in September were down 0.5% from July’s level

Delta variant impacted indoor dining

The delta variant was a factor in deteriorating business conditions, according to most restaurant operators. In a September 2021 survey fielded by the Association, 78% of operators said their restaurant experienced a decline in customer demand for indoor on-premises dining, as a result of the increase in coronavirus cases due to the delta variant.

A strong majority of both fullservice operators (81%) and limited-service operators (75%) said the delta variant led to a decrease in customer demand for indoor on-premises dining. 

The ability to offer outdoor seating options was likely the only thing that propped up on-premises sales in recent weeks. In the Association’s September 2021 survey, 61% of operators that offer outdoor dining said their restaurant experienced an increase in customer demand for outdoor seating, as a result of the delta variant 

*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.

Track more economic indicators and read more analysis and commentary from the Association's chief economist Bruce Grindy.