As the novel coronavirus began to spread globally in early 2020, it was clear that it would have a significant impact on the U.S. restaurant industry. To measure this impact, the National Restaurant Association launched a weekly survey of 1,000 adults (beginning in February 2020) to track how consumers were using restaurants.

This article takes a look back at consumers’ restaurant usage throughout the first 12 months of the pandemic, as measured by the Association’s weekly survey. Note that this is not a measure of sales or traffic. Rather, it tracks the extent to which U.S. adults participated in restaurant and foodservice on a week-to-week basis. 

The survey asks consumers about their restaurant patronage during the breakfast, lunch and dinner dayparts – both on-premises and off-premises – as well as the afternoon snack/beverage period.

For comparison purposes, the 54 weeks of survey data are divided into 6 periods:

  • Pre-Pandemic (2/24/20 – 3/15/20)
  • Lockdown (3/16/20 – 5/24/20)
  • Initial Reopening (5/25/20 – 6/14/20)
  • Summer/Fall (6/15/20 – 11/29/20)
  • Winter Restrictions (11/30/20 – 1/31/21)
  • Early Spring 2021 (2/1/21 – 3/14/21)

In the months ahead, the survey will continue to track consumers’ restaurant usage as the nation moves toward a post-pandemic environment.

Below is a summary of trends in consumers’ restaurant and foodservice participation during the past year for the 7 restaurant occasions tracked by the weekly survey. The figures in the charts represent the average percent of adults each week that used restaurants during the reference period.

 

On-premises dinner: Usage remains dampened across all age groups

  • During the Pre-Pandemic period, an average of 59% of adults each week went out for dinner at a sit-down restaurant or fast-food place. Gen Z adults (72%) and Millennials (65%) were the most likely to go out for dinner in the weeks leading up to the pandemic.
  • On-premises dinner patronage fell sharply during the Lockdown period, with average weekly usage plunging by more than 40 percentage points.
  • As the weather improved mid-2020, more people started going out for dinner. An average of 35% of adults each week went out for dinner during the Summer/Fall period.
  • After a slight dip during the Winter Restrictions period, on-premises dinner activity trended higher as spring approached. However, the 37% of adults each week that went out for dinner during the Early Spring 2021 period was more than 20 percentage points below the Pre-Pandemic level.
  • On-premises dinner frequency remains dampened across all age groups. Only 25% of baby boomers each week went out for dinner during the Early Spring 2021 period – down from 50% in the Pre-Pandemic period.

Off-premises dinner: Growth in usage across all age groups

  • Prior to the pandemic, an average of 58% of adults each week purchased takeout or delivery for dinner. Millennials (72%) and Gen Z adults (66%) were the most likely to order takeout or delivery for dinner.
  • As restaurants pivoted to off-premises during the Lockdown period, an increasing proportion of consumers starting using takeout and delivery for dinner.
  • By the Initial Reopening period in late-May, a majority of adults across all age groups were ordering takeout or delivery for dinner.
  • As of the Early Spring 2021 period, consumers’ usage of takeout and delivery for dinner was elevated across all age groups, compared to pre-pandemic levels. Overall, the largest gains in weekly off-premises dinner usage were seen among Gen Xers (from 58% to 66%) and baby boomers (from 44% to 51%).

On-premises lunch: Consumer activity remains below pre-pandemic levels

  • During the Pre-Pandemic period, an average of 40% of adults each week went out for lunch at a sit-down fast-food place, restaurant or deli. Gen Z adults (48%) and Millennials (45%) were the most likely to go out for lunch in the weeks leading up to the pandemic.
  • Average weekly on-premises lunch activity fell by nearly 30 percentage points during the Lockdown period, with declines seen across all age groups.
  • On-premises lunch usage only registered modest gains during the initial months after the lockdowns, likely because many people were still not going into work.
  • During the Early Spring 2021 period, an average of 26% of adults each week went out for lunch at a sit-down fast-food place, restaurant or deli.
  • On-premises lunch usage remained dampened across all age groups, with activity among Gen Xers and baby boomers the furthest from their pre-pandemic levels.

Off-premises lunch: Strong growth in activity across all age groups

  • During the Pre-Pandemic period, an average of 38% of adults ordered takeout or delivery for lunch from a fast-food place, restaurant or deli. Millennials (50%) and Gen Z adults (48%) were the most likely to use off-premises options for lunch in the weeks leading up to the pandemic.
  • Consumers’ usage of takeout and delivery for lunch increased as the economy went into lockdown, and continued to rise throughout the first 12 months of the pandemic.
  • By the Early Spring 2021 period, an average of 48% of adults each week ordered takeout or delivery for lunch. That was 10 percentage points higher than the Pre-Pandemic average.
  • Consumers across all age groups increased their usage of off-premises lunch options during the pandemic. Millennials saw the largest growth: increasing from 50% during the Pre-Pandemic period to 63% in the Early Spring 2021 period.

On-premises breakfast: Activity remains below pre-pandemic levels

  • In the weeks leading up to the pandemic, an average of 27% of adults went out for breakfast at a sit-down fast-food place, coffee shop or restaurant. Gen Z adults and Millennials (both 34%) were the most likely to go out for breakfast during the Pre-Pandemic period.
  • Like all on-premises dayparts, the proportion of consumers going out for breakfast fell sharply during the Lockdown period.
  • Although consumers’ likelihood of going out for breakfast increased during the months since the economy emerged from lockdowns, it remains below pre-pandemic levels.
  • Gen Z adults and Millennials are the closest to returning to their pre-pandemic usage of on-premises breakfast.

Off-premises breakfast: Consumer usage is similar to pre-pandemic levels

  • During the Pre-Pandemic period, an average of 30% of adults each week picked up a breakfast meal, snack or beverage from a fast-food place, coffee shop or restaurant. Gen Z adults (42%) and Millennials (39%) were the most likely to get takeout in the morning in the weeks leading up to the pandemic.
  • The proportion of adults picking up a breakfast meal or beverage from a restaurant or coffee shop declined during the first several weeks of the pandemic, likely because many people were not going into work.
  • Consumers’ use of takeout in the morning rose as the economy began to reopen, and reached pre-pandemic levels by the Summer/Fall period.
  • Unlike the off-premises lunch and dinner dayparts that experienced significant growth, consumer usage of breakfast takeout remains generally on par with pre-pandemic levels.

Afternoon snacks and beverages: Higher usage among millennials

  • During the Pre-Pandemic period, an average of 30% of adults picked up a snack or beverage in the afternoon from a fast food place, coffee shop or restaurant. Gen Z adults (46%) and Millennials (40%) were the most likely to go get a snack or beverage in the afternoon.
  • Although afternoon snack and beverage activity dipped during the initial months of the pandemic, it returned to normal levels by the Summer/Fall period.
  • Millennials were the only age group to significantly increase their afternoon snack and beverage usage: rising from 40% during the Pre-Pandemic period to 48% in the Early Spring 2021 period.

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