Restaurant sales registered a robust increase in March, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Eating and drinking places* totaled $62.2 billion on a seasonally-adjusted basis in March – up 13.4% from February’s sales volume of $54.8 billion.

March represented the second healthy increase in the last three months, with total monthly sales rising more than $11 billion above the recent low registered in December 2020.

It wasn’t just restaurants that saw stronger sales in March, as consumers evidently spread the latest round of stimulus checks around their communities. Spending at sporting goods stores (+23.5%), clothing stores (+18.3%), vehicle dealers (15.1%), department stores (+13.0%) and building supply stores (+12.1%) also rose sharply between February and March.

While the trendline is pointing in the right direction, the restaurant industry’s road to recovery remains long, as the boost from the stimulus checks will wane in the coming months. Eating and drinking place sales in March remained more than $3 billion – or 5% – below their pre-pandemic level in February 2020.

In total during the first 13 months of the pandemic crisis in the U.S., total restaurant and foodservice sales were down $280 billion from expected levels, according to Association estimates. This includes the sales shortfall at eating and drinking places, plus a sharp reduction in spending at foodservice operations in sectors such as lodging, arts/entertainment/recreation, education, healthcare and retail.

Patios are reopening

A catalyst for improving restaurant sales in recent weeks was the growing number of patios that are reopening for customers. Sixty-one percent of fullservice operators say they currently offer on-premises outdoor dining in a space such as a patio, deck or sidewalk, according to a new Association survey. That’s up from just 42% in February, but still below the 74% who reported similarly in September 2020.

Fifty-three percent of limited-service operators report offering on-premises outdoor dining, up from 37% in February.

Warmer temperatures will likely add to the number of al fresco dining options available to consumers in the weeks ahead, particularly in jurisdictions that allow for expanded outdoor seating. Consumers are certainly receptive to these options, with more than 8 in 10 adults saying they favor allowing restaurants to continue setting up tables on sidewalks, parking lots or streets on a permanent basis.

*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.