The limited-service restaurant sector has returned from its post-recessionary struggles. According to the marketing firm NPD Group, the limited-service sector has recovered all of the business during those years following the Lehman Brothers collapse.
But that doesn’t mean the sector is back to the way it was in 2007. Much has changed in those years, especially the way people eat fast food.
Consumers’ allegiances have shifted. In recent years, consumers have taken their spending from traditional restaurant stalwarts and instead are spending it at up-and-coming concepts that offer cutting-edge menus and business models.
The bigger quick-service chains have responded with remodels, menu changes, technological advancements and other efforts to get back into the hearts of consumers. But with ingredient costs high, they haven’t been able to use their primary strength — marketing reach — to get those customers back.
That changed this year, when just about all of the major quick-service restaurant brands unleashed a price war, the likes of which haven’t been seen since, well, the recession.
McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut and others are all offered some sort of value deal early in the year, and are frequently backing it with heavy marketing dollars.
“Traffic at most burger QSR chains has been declining,” said Andy Puzder, industry veteran and CEO of CKE Restaurants Inc., operator of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. “Part of that is related to the growth of better burger chains — although I don’t think they have better burgers than we do.
“Most chains had to raise prices aggressively in 2014, when commodity costs had rapid spikes. Those costs have normalized this year. QSR brands are now in a position to recover lost transactions by discounting.”
Most of the largest, traditional quick-service chains have seen sales stagnate or even fall in recent years.
McDonald’s Corp., which saw traffic increase considerably between 2008 and 2012 as consumers opted for value, it saw an 8.7 percent cumulative traffic decline from 2013 to 2015, as calculated by NRN based on Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Between McDonald’s, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC and Burger King, the largest single-year growth in systemwide sales in either 2013 or 2014 was 1.75 percent. Many chains saw declines in systemwide sales those two years, such as Burger King and KFC and 2013 and McDonald’s in 2014, according to Nation's Restaurant Newsdata.
Given price increases and reduced discounting in those years, those numbers likely indicate traffic fell at those chains. And that lost traffic shifted to other companies.
Much of the traffic shifted to non-restaurant players. Convenience stores and grocery stores that sell prepared food have been competing more heavily with restaurants in recent years and have worked on improving their offerings.
Indeed, some of the strongest growth in foodservice in recent years came from c-stores, including Casey’s General Store, Sheetz and Wawa, all of which saw systemwide foodservice sales grow at least 3.75 percent in 2013 and 2014.
“Competition is no longer just the restaurant down the street,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst with The NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y. “They have upped the ante, so to speak, with fast food, offering quality, variety and freshness.”
Fast-casual traffic shift
Fast-casual chains have also taken a strong bit of market share within the limited-service sector. Within restaurants, they represent nearly all of the growth in recent years.
Fast-casual restaurants offer a promise of higher quality food, at a higher price point than quick-service restaurants, but with a counter-service model.
These restaurants have long been taking traffic away from casual-dining restaurants that have seen steady erosion in business in recent years. Fast-casual restaurants also lure quick-service diners who want a better meal.
“The low hanging fruit for fast casual is the QSR customer,” said Andy Wiederhorn, CEO of the burger chain Fatburger, the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based, 150-unit chain. “It doesn’t take much to convince a percentage of QSR customers that, for a slightly higher average check, they can get better quality and experience. It’s not really a hard sell.
“There’s a price point barrier. Once you get them across the price point barrier, the food and quality speaks for itself.”
There’s also a sense that consumers are looking for something different. Part of the growth at chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill, Tender Greens and Shake Shack is that they’re new and exciting to younger consumers.
“People are migrating away from [traditional] concepts, trying to get to the new stuff that’s different,” said Kevin Burke, managing partner at Los Angeles-based investment banking firm Trinity Capital LLC.
“When a new concept comes along, they don’t have all the baggage. They have new stores, no drop ceiling. They don’t have all the tinny, plastic-y, metally industrial stuff and more woods, colors and soft tones.”