New restaurant report shows worker shortage affecting ‘guest satisfaction’ and sales

Black Box Intelligence, a Dallas-based restaurant analytics company, found a downturn in sales growth and customer satisfaction nationally, as well as in Dallas, for the month of August.

Sales growth dropped after two months of progressive growth in June and July, nationally and locally. To calculate sales growth, Black Box compared metrics to pre-pandemic numbers in 2019 from a data set that includes 30,000 chain restaurants in 25 cities. Sales growth nationwide was 6.1% in August, a 2% drop from July. The dip is likely due to the “rising number of COVID cases and wide media coverage of its delta variant,” the report states.

In Dallas, guest satisfaction fell, too. With the use of natural language processing, Black Box classifies online reviews into positive, neutral and negative mentions, and Dallas ranked 20th out of the nation’s top 25 markets for quality of service, and 21st in restaurant “ambience”.

Regarding sales, Dallas ranked 11th out of the 25 cities for highest same-store sales growth since 2019, and 9th for the three month period between June and August.

Black Box Intelligence Vice President of Insights and Knowledge, Victor Fernandez, says that the first two weeks of September are already showing an uptick in sales.

“Our data shows sales growth improving both at the national level and for the Dallas market, with the latter improving at a faster pace,” he tells The Dallas Morning News. The growth is possibly related to a stabilization in coronavirus hospitalizations as the delta surge begins to subside in Dallas County.

Patrons dine on the outdoor patio at Whiskey Cake Kitchen & Bar on Friday, May 1, 2020 in Plano, Texas.

New York had the lowest rate of sales growth last month, and San Francisco had the second lowest. San Francisco also scored the lowest in “customer sentiment,” a quantitative data set that tracks around 190 brands to benchmark customer satisfaction. Rankings are based on six attributes mentioned in online reviews: food, service, ambience, beverage, value, and intent to return.

Orlando ranked highest in customer sentiment in all six areas except service, which Philadelphia led. As for sales, Phoenix had the highest same-store sales growth in the nation this summer, based on Black Box’s findings.

In its August Guest Satisfaction Snapshot, which draws on data from 50,000 restaurants nationally, Black Box reports guests are only marginally more positive about the food they’re eating compared to a year ago.

The small improvement in positive food mentions, “despite the easy comparison a year ago, highlights the difficulties restaurants are facing regarding food execution due to staffing shortages and supply chain issues,” a press release states.

Fernandez says that staffing issues remain clients’ top concern in polls. Black Box’s work force intelligence product shows limited- and quick-service restaurants have roughly one less employee than 2019. Full-service restaurants are averaging a total of six less servers and hosts, as well as three less kitchen employees.

Fernandez adds that Black Box’s guest intelligence product has begun tracking “understaffed” mentions in online reviews. Overall, “guest sentiment has dropped across the board for quarters one and two,” he says. “Guests are talking about service problems and wait times, portion sizes, and problems around food quality as restaurants struggle to get their usual supply.”

The biggest drop in customer sentiment year-over-year was related to restaurant “ambience,” a category Fernandez defines primarily as cleanliness, but also includes appearance and decor. The last three months have experienced the lowest percentage of ambience positive mentions since the beginning of the year, the August report states.

Not all types of restaurants were affected equally by the downturn in sales experienced by the industry last month, however. Limited-service, or fast casual brands, didn’t experience a sales downturn at all, but had the sharpest declines in guest net sentiment as they struggled to keep up with additional demand.

“When COVID fears escalate, guests tend to shift some of their restaurant spending towards limited-service brands and less towards those in full-service,” the report states.

As Fernandez sees it, “We’ve found that whenever COVID fears spike and the number of cases rise, people aren’t eliminating meals from restaurants, but they pick up instead.”

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