Marking Pandemic Time By What We Ate

During this past year of pandemic, it sometimes felt like time had stopped, or that we were living through one endless day. But there were ways to mark the time. The period of Tiger King melted into the period of the yeast shortage melted into warmer weather melted into the Bon Appetit scandal melted into the election melted into Emily In Paris. I think that's how it went anyway. Punctuated by rounds of The Bachelor/ette.

Food business people have their own way of measuring time: quarterly sales. Restaurant Business compared same-store sales at major fast food chains from 2019 and 2020, divided into segments: burgers, chicken, pizza, Mexican, and coffee. The analysis was limited to publicly traded chains, so there are some conspicuous absences, most notably Dunkin', but there's still enough information to spot general trends.

As QSR noted back in September, pizza was the champion of the first half of the pandemic. But chicken also did extremely well, especially Wingstop, the wing chain, which, Restaurant Business reports, spawned a slew of ghost kitchen imitators. Popeyes also started the pandemic strong, but slumped around the third quarter when "the chain simply ran into a buzzsaw of really tough comparisons." By the end of the year, though, customers began going back to burgers and burritos.

The segment that really suffered was coffee, probably for obvious reasons. But by the third quarter, business had rebounded as people began going back to work, and Starbucks finished the year down 5% from 2019—a solid finish considering it was down 40% in the second quarter.

"Pizza and chicken chains were the clear winners," Restaurant Business summarizes, "but who won within those segments depended entirely on their pre-pandemic takeout strategies. Those that had established delivery and takeout efforts, or which specialized in family bundled meals—or had a game-changing chicken sandwich—were big winners."

Which makes sense: if you're going to order in, you might as well get something that travels well and leaves plenty of leftovers. Like, say, a pizza or a bucket of chicken.

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