Fast food reigns supreme as inflation weighs on pricier restaurants

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A girl waiting in line to pick up an order at a McDonald’s restaurant.
Oleksii Chumachenko | SOPA Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

Fast-food chains are looking like the big winners in the fourth quarter — and beyond — as fast-casual and casual-dining restaurants struggle to attract customers.

Many publicly traded restaurant companies haven’t reported their latest quarterly results yet, but for those that have, a pattern is emerging. Inflation-weary customers pulled back their restaurant spending during the holiday season, just as they spent less than expected at retailers. Savvy fast-food chains appealed to those consumers with value menus and enticing promotions, drawing in customers across the income spectrum.

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Generally, the fast-food sector fares better than the rest of the industry during times of economic uncertainty and downturns.

Take McDonald’s, for example. The fast-food giant said U.S. same-store sales climbed 10.3%, helped in part by low-income consumers returning more frequently than they had for the prior two quarters. Executives also credited the success of its Adult Happy Meal promotion and the annual return of the McRib for its strong sales growth. Its U.S. traffic increased for the second consecutive quarter, bucking the industry trend.

Likewise, rival Yum Brands reported solid U.S. demand. Taco Bell’s domestic same-store sales climbed 11%, boosted by increased breakfast orders, the return of Mexican Pizza and its value meals. Pizza Hut’s U.S. same-store sales grew 4%, while KFC’s ticked up 1% as it faced tough year-ago comparisons.

More fast-food earnings are on deck in the coming weeks. Burger King owner Restaurant Brands International is slated to announce its fourth-quarter results on Tuesday, while Domino’s Pizza will post its earnings Feb. 23.

‘We just didn’t see that pop’

In contrast to McDonald’s and Yum’s strong results, Chipotle Mexican Grill on Tuesday reported quarterly earnings and revenue that fell short of Wall Street’s estimates for the first time in more than five years. CEO Brian Niccol maintained that the burrito chain’s price hikes haven’t led to “meaningful resistance” from customers.

Instead, Chipotle executives presented a laundry list of reasons why its performance disappointed: bad weather, the underperforming launch of Garlic Guajillo Steak, tough comparisons to the previous year’s brisket launch and seasonality.

Customers order from a Chipotle restaurant at the King of Prussia Mall in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
Mark Makela | Reuters

“As we got around the holidays, we just didn’t see that pop, that momentum, that we normally see … frankly, we started the quarter soft, and we ended the quarter soft,” Chipotle Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung said on the company’s conference call, comparing the decline in December to weaker retail sales at that time.

Chipotle said that traffic turned positive in January. However, the chain is facing easy comparisons to a year earlier, when Omicron outbreaks forced Chipotle and other chains to shutter early or temporarily close locations. And Bank of America analyst Sara Senatore noted in a research note on Wednesday that January’s unseasonably warm weather has been supporting demand for the broader industry.

Rival fast-casual chains haven’t reported their fourth-quarter earnings yet. Shake Shack is set to share its results on Feb. 16. However, in early January, it announced preliminary same-store sales growth that fell short of Wall Street’s estimates. Sweetgreen is slated to report its results on Feb. 23, while Portillo’s is scheduled for March 2.

Casual-dining concerns

Fast-casual restaurants’ struggles are an even worse sign for the casual-dining segment.

For more than a decade, casual-dining restaurants have struggled to attract customers as Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Shake Shack have stolen their customers. So the likes of Red Lobster and Applebee’s have turned to offering deep discounts or spending big bucks on advertising.

Soaring inflation has compounded the issue, particularly for restaurant companies like Brinker International, which is trying to turn around Chili’s Grill and Bar.

A customer walks towards the entrance of a Brinker International Inc. Chili’s Grill & Bar restaurant in San Antonio, Texas.
Callaghan O’Hare | Bloomberg | Getty Images

At the start of the month, Brinker reported that Chili’s traffic fell 7.6% for the quarter ended Dec. 28. Brinker CEO Kevin Hochman, the former head of KFC’s U.S. business, told analysts on the company’s conference call that the decline was expected as it tries to shed less profitable transactions. Chili’s has hiked its prices and cut down on coupons as part of the strategy.

More full-service restaurants are expected to report their results later this month. Outback Steakhouse owner Bloomin’ Brands is slated to make its announcement on Feb. 16.

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