LRA President: Despite January sales uptick, restaurants still struggling

Like the rest of the U.S., Louisiana saw restaurant sales rise in January for the first time in four months—but that doesn’t mean the industry is anywhere close to moving past the pandemic.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that, after trending sharply lower at the end of 2020, restaurant sales bounced back with a healthy gain in January, with eating and drinking establishments registering sales of $54.6 billion nationwide on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to a report from the National Restaurant Association.

That was up 6.9% from December’s sales volume of $51.1 billion and represented the largest monthly increase since June. However, it wasn’t enough to make up for the 8.3% drop in sales during the final three months of 2020.

In Louisiana, the bulk of sales growth is occurring in quick-service and fast-casual concepts, which have been more adaptable to takeout and delivery services, according to Louisiana Restaurant Association President Stan Harris. But the state’s full-service restaurants aren’t seeing the same kind of recovery, generally operating at 70% to 80% below their pre-pandemic revenue. 

“It’s not really any better for restaurants right now; they don’t have a financial windfall,” Harris says. “At a time when cases have dropped for over 30 days and we’ve flattened the curve yet again, they’re still struggling every day with phase two restrictions.”

Generally, January’s gain was a step in the right direction, but monthly sales across the country remain nearly $11 billion below their pre-coronavirus levels.

During the recent surge in winter weather, restaurants have also lost an important consumer touchpoint, with outdoor dining—which had been a lifeline for many restaurants in areas that ramped up indoor dining restrictions—becoming less feasible.

Only 16% of full-service restaurant operators expect to have higher sales in February or March than they did in January, while 46% think their sales will decline from January’s level.

In order to rebuild guest confidence in Louisiana, Harris says it will take the state lowering or eliminating dining restrictions altogether as well as pushing to expand vaccine eligibility to industry workers and others in the greater public.

Read the National Restaurant Association’s report.