U.S. commercial restaurants closed at a faster rate than new openings, creating a two-year pattern of decline, according to the latest restaurant census released Tuesday by The NPD Group.
The Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm found U.S. restaurant unit counts declined by 2 percent, or 9,450 restaurants, between April 1, 2010, and March 31, 2011, compared with the same time frame a year earlier.
Independent restaurants comprised most of the decline, with 8,650 closures, NPD said. Chain restaurant unit counts remained relatively stable.
“The decline in independent units is the steepest we’ve seen since NPD began conducting the ‘Spring ReCount’ census in 2001,” said Greg Starzynski, NPD’s director of product development-foodservice. The census is conducted each spring and fall.
“A volatile economy, frugal consumers and a lack of financial backing have made it a difficult business environment for independent restaurants,” Starzynski added.
In the most recent ReCount census, NPD found the total number of restaurants fell to 574,050 from 583,500 in the previous-year period.
However, the NPD CREST study, which tracks consumer usage of commercial and non-commercial foodservice outlets, found that for the year ended May 2011, visits to U.S. restaurants held stable compared with the previous year, when visits were down 3 percent.
The CREST study also found consumer spending at restaurants improved by 2 percent for the year ended May 2011, compared with the same period a year ago, when dollars were down by 1 percent.
According to NPD’s ReCount census, the number of quick-service restaurants declined by 1 percent, or 3,485 units. Full-service restaurant units, which include casual-dining, mid-scale and fine-dining restaurants, fell by 2 percent, or 5,965 units, from the Spring 2010 ReCount census.
By comparison, the total number of domestic restaurants fell about 1 percent, or by 5,551 outlets, to 579,102 locations in NPD’s Fall 2010 ReCount.
And in the Spring 2010 ReCount, the number of restaurants fell by 5,204 units, a 1-percent decline from the total number of eateries recorded a year prior, NPD said.
While unit counts were down through March of this year, NPD said restaurant traffic trends were improving.
— Ron Ruggles