Coffee Chains Remain Virtually Unfazed By The Pandemic

A new white paper suggests that coffee chain foot traffic is up in a big way.

As we know, the pandemic has dramatically changed the ways Americans eat. Now, we rely more heavily on restaurant reservations; we've bid farewell to the last all-you-can-eat Popeyes buffet; we've started seeing terrifying delivery bots in the wild. But there's one thing that hasn't changed, and that's our collective reliance on an old-fashioned cup of joe. Placer.ai, a foot traffic analytics firm, recently released a white paper revealing the steamy, steamy truth: foot traffic in the coffee space is right back to pre-pandemic levels.

One important thing to note is that the white paper only analyzes data from chains, including Starbucks, Dunkin', Dutch Bros., Caribou Coffee, and Peet's. With that in mind, Placer reports that, while the wider dining sector "continued to struggle," coffee chain foot traffic since May 2021 has actually outpaced 2019 numbers. In fact, in December 2021, visits to coffee chains were up 7.5% compared to December 2019. But for the dining sector at large, those visits were down 1.8%.

The key takeaway here is that many of us have remained loyal to our coffee chain of choice, even in times when walking into a restaurant felt tenuous. The report concludes that "the demand for coffee is significant and largely unaffected by disruptions in other categories." That's true even given the fact that, per the report, there was "substantial YoY [year-over-year] growth in home coffee machine sales between May 2020 and May 2021."

I'm in that category—people who purchased new coffee equipment during the height of the pandemic, but continued popping out for coffee runs on a regular basis. For me, it was a combination of the social element—supporting my favorite baristas—and the physical act of grabbing a coffee, which I find useful when I need to reset my brain. The study also points out that coffee shops remain "community hubs," especially those with patios. "As more people looked for ways to meet with friends and family outdoors, buying a coffee to-go and sitting on an outdoor bench transformed from a lame date idea to a popular rendezvous concept," the study reads.

Of course, like any white paper, it's important to take this one with a grain of salt. I'd be curious to see how this chain-driven data compares to the numbers local, independently-owned coffee shops are seeing. I'm also interested to hear from you, readers—did your coffee habits change in either direction during the height of the pandemic? Let's discuss.

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