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Restaurant Outlook 2024: Year of New Location Expansion Plans?

RJ Hottovy
Jan 13, 2024
Restaurant Outlook 2024: Year of New Location Expansion Plans?

As discussed last week, 2023 was a year that forced restaurant operators to stay agile amid inflationary headwinds and changes in consumer behavior, daypart shifts, new approaches to drive-thru, and population migration changes. This week’s ICR Conference also gave us a chance to speak with the management team from more than 25 restaurant chains as well as their investors to better understand their lessons from 2023 and how they plan to apply them in 2024.

Despite most chains reporting that visits are still down on a year-over-year basis, there was a sense of optimism among many of the operators we spoke to. Many acknowledged that there were still pressures weighing on consumer spending, but that the strategies put in place during 2023 to stabilize visitation trends had been working (including an emphasis on value, elevated experience, adopting new restaurant formats to better address a wider range of commercial property types, and new menu innovations). Several management teams acknowledged that the contractor availability and equipment supply chain bottlenecks that had plagued new store openings in 2023 had started to dissipate, with several chains planning to resume or even exceed their pre-pandemic pace of restaurant openings (although many admitted that new store buildout costs are still running 25%-30% higher than they were 5 years ago). Given the higher costs involved with new store openings (and the risk of opening a location in a subpar site), there was a heavy emphasis on harnessing new data sources to better understand migration trends, trade area demographics, and incumbent competition when making site selection opportunities (and thank you to customers like Dave & Buster’s and Chuy’s for highlighting how they are incorporating Placer data into these decisions).

Below, we discuss a few key trends that restaurant operators and their commercial real estate partners should be thinking about as we move into 2024.

Restaurants Ready to Grow Again

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising at an event where several restaurant operators were looking to raise capital, but the overarching theme from most management teams that we spoke to this week was that they were ready to accelerate unit expansion plans. Expansion strategies differed by concept, but most operators planned to open new locations across a combination of existing and new markets. With respect to new markets, many operators told us they were prioritizing South and Southeastern markets for new market expansion, echoing what we heard from McDonald’s and others last year. Below, we’ve presented the latest data from Placer’s Migration Trends Report which shows total population changes by market from November 2019-November 2023. Indeed, our data confirms that many South (Phoenix, Texas) and Southeast (Central Florida, Carolinas) markets were among the highest growth populations in the U.S. over the past four years.

That said, with so many restaurant operators targeting these regions, we heard from several executives about the importance of fully understanding the makeup of the markets. Said another way, just because a market has seen meaningful population growth, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a candidate for expansion. Below, we’ve presented the same migration map as above (2019-2023 population growth), but with a origin/destination household income filter. A red dot on this map indicates that a market saw the average household income fall because of migration, while a green dot indicates that a market saw an increase in household income. Here, we see a slightly different story, as many higher growth populations actually saw a decline in household income due to migration. We also see the impact of the urban/suburban migration shift that we’ve discussed in the past, with many smaller markets across the Carolinas and Central Florida seeing the highest household income growth versus 2019.

Below, we’ve attempted to bring the two charts together and identify markets that have not only seen population growth but also a significant increase in household income. We see markets like Las Vegas and other areas in Central Florida and the Carolinas region score well using this methodology, but a number of other markets like Boise City, ID, Lakeland, WI, and Spokane, WA also seeing increases in population but also an increase in their average household income.

Most U.S. markets have gone through significant changes post-pandemic both in terms of population size and population makeup.  At the end of the day, it's important for restaurants and retailers to not only understand both of these factors when evaluating new markets for growth. We’ve certainly seen success stories–Portillo’s continues to thrive in Texas, for example–but we’ve also seen cases where restaurant openings haven’t been as successful in newer markets because of migration changes.

Eatertainment Demand Remains Strong

We spoke about trends in the eatertainment category last year with the conclusion being that these concepts were still key in driving traffic to commercial properties (despite facing tougher year-over-year comparisons from the great reopening we saw in 2022). There was a palpable sense of optimism among the eatertainment concepts we spoke to at the event, whether they were more focused on entertainment (including Dave & Buster’s, Puttshack, and Pinstripes) or interactive dining (Kura Revolving Sushi Bar or GEN Korean BBQ).  

We’ve updated the eatertainment versus casual dining category visit per location analysis we’ve presented in the past below. Although eatertainment’s visit per location outperformance narrowed versus casual dining during Q4 2023, we believe this is a byproduct of seasonality (shift to sit-down dining during the holiday season) and expect the gap to widen once again during Q1 2024.

Most of the eatertainment concepts we spoke to at the ICR conference planned a two-pronged approach to unit expansion in 2024: infilling existing markets and establishing a beachhead in newer markets. Most concepts in this category were planning to grow their store bases by at least double-digit growth rates in 2024, with some like Pinstripes are forecasting 30%+ unit growth this year. Other like Dave & Buster’s are planning to focus on remodeling activity on top of new unit openings to modernize their locations. As demand for eatertainment remains strong among consumers and mall owners, we anticipate that this will remain one of the past growing categories in dining during 2024.

Casual Dining Connecting with Millennials

Casual dining concepts often have a reputation of catering to an older population. However, Darden’s management team called out several demographic trends that should benefit its different brands (including Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s, Yardhouse, and others). First, while the percentage of the population in their peak earning years (typically between the ages of 35 and 55) had been on a downward trend for much of the 2000s and part of the 2010s, we’ve seen a reversal of this trend in recent years, which should stimulate demand for full-service dining. Second, the company noted that it over-indexes to millennials. Our data reinforces this, as the potential trade area audience profile by age cohort for Olive Garden (below) indicates a higher percentage of population between the ages of 30-49, encapsulating much of the millennial age range (roughly 27-42 years old today). Last year, we noted that some of the shift to earlier dining times may have been due to changing demographic trends in cities, with an increase in younger families in urban markets needing earlier dining times. Darden's commentary offers further validation of these trends and offers hope for other casual dining chains as this generation cohort continues to enter their peak earning years.

Last year, we noted that some of the shift to earlier dining times may have been due to changing demographic trends in cities, with an increase in younger families in urban markets needing earlier dining times. Darden's commentary offers further validation of these trends and offers hope for other casual dining chains as this generation cohort continues to enter their peak earning years.

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RJ Hottovy

Head of Analytical Research,

R.J. Hottovy, CFA has covered the restaurant, retail, and e-commerce sectors for 20 years as an equity analyst and strategist for Morningstar, William Blair & Co., and Deutsche Bank. R.J. also brings a wealth of experience with early-stage investments as a committee member for the IrishAngels / Vitalize venture capital group. Over the past three years, he advised over 50 food service companies on more than $200 million in early-stage capital raises and M&A transactions.

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