Google Data Reveals the Cities With the Fastest & Slowest Recovering Restaurants
While still not fully out of the woods, the restaurant industry can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. March saw the best sales month since the start of the pandemic and the high vaccination rates promise a sustained recovery in the following months.
Although many restaurants are still closed (some for good) and sales and employment in the industry have a long way to go to recover completely, March 2021 Google data shows a record demand from patrons wanting to eat out.
According to Google Adwords data, over 133 million Google searches were made in March 2021 for restaurants near me and related terms such as breakfast places near me, Chinese restaurants near me, Taco Bell near me, etc.
The volume of searches for restaurant-related keywords was 82% higher compared to March 2020, and also substantially higher than similar searches in the pre-pandemic months of February 2020 (93.9 million searches) and January 2020 (88.8 million searches).
Moreover, searches for recipes, which have skyrocketed during this pandemic and show a preference for home cooked meals, are cooling off, March registering the lowest number of recipe searches for the past six months.
But the record growth in restaurant-related searches was not evenly distributed geographically. Southern cities and top tourist destinations like Miami, Las Vegas, and Virginia Beach lead the charts, while places like New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. continue to see demand below pre-pandemic levels.
Chef’s Pencil has analyzed the search volumes for restaurant-related searches for the largest 50 cities in the US to identify those cities where demand was highest and lowest compared to the pre-pandemic period. To that extent, we compared restaurant-related searches from March 2021 to January 2020 (the last standard-length month before the pandemic started).
Top Cities Where Restaurant-related Searches Surpassed Pre-pandemic Levels
Nevada reopened restaurants, casinos, and bars at 50% capacity in mid-March and both restaurant owners and patrons could hardly wait. Restaurant-related searches on Google were up 148% Y-o-Y in Las Vegas, and up 79% and 81% compared to the pre-pandemic months of February 2020 and January 2020 respectively.
Mexican food & restaurant searches were the most popular in the category, followed by fast food, Chinese restaurants, and steakhouse searches. Among the chains, McDonald’s, Denny’s, and Subway were the top searched for restaurants.
“The resurgence of the desire for people to go out is really overwhelming,” said Chef Thomas Keller in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Pent-up demand for both eating and the unbeatable Las Vegas experience is expected to help the city continue its fast path to recovery in the next few months.
Memphis ranked second in our rankings, with restaurant-related searches up 87% compared to March 2020 and 79% compared to January 2020. Searches related to Chinese food were the most popular in the category, followed by fast food (generic), Mexican, and seafood. Among the chains, McDonald’s, Subway, and Waffle House were the top searched for restaurants.
Business is at or close to pre-pandemic levels, which has generated a new problem of its own: staff shortage, a problem that many cities around the country would love to have.
Texas fully reopened in early March and customers flocked to restaurants throughout the state, and, according to Google, in San Antonio (ranking 3rd) and El Paso (ranking 4th) more than anywhere else.
Over 1M restaurant-related searches were done in March 2021 in San Antonio, up 108% Y-o-Y and 71% from January 2020. Searches for Mexican restaurants/food were the most popular in the category, followed by Chinese and seafood restaurants. Among the chains, McDonald’s, Wingstop, and Whataburger were the most popular searched for locations.
Similar to Memphis, the booming restaurant business has led to a severe shortage of restaurant workers in San Antonio. In some places, customers had to order food at the counter to let servers focus on distributing drinks, while in others restaurant owners decided to serve fewer customers and lose out potential sales in order to maintain service quality.
Restaurant-related searches in El Paso were up 87% Y-o-Y in March 2021 and up 67% compared to January 2020. The most popular local searches were for Chinese restaurants followed by Mexican and fast-food joints. Among the chains, McDonald’s had the most local searches, followed by Subway, Wingstop, and Whataburger.
Staff shortages are problematic in El Paso, as in many parts of the country, and are slowing down a return to 100% capacity. This is not an easy fix, though a much better problem to have than lockdowns and lack of customers.
Virginia Beach ranks 5th in our charts with restaurant-related searches in March 2021 up 80% Y-o-Y and 66% compared to January 2020. Chinese, fast-food, and seafood restaurants were the most searched for places in March 2021. Among the chains, McDonald’s, Subway, and Chipotle were the top restaurants searched for locally.
The reopening and surge in customers have put a lot of pressure on hiring staff. Many restaurant owners are complaining about the difficulty of finding staff and unfair competition with unemployment benefits which are close to or equal to many restaurant workers’ pay.
Restaurant-related searches have risen 90% Y-o-Y in Albuquerque, NM in March 2021 and were up 60% and 65% compared to February and January 2020 respectively. Chinese, fast-food and Mexican restaurants were the top searches in March while among the chains McDonald’s, Subway, and Denny’s were the most popular choices.
Not all restaurant-related searches are for dine in establishments. Drive-throughs for coffee, pizza, and fast food have become very popular in Albuquerque leading to traffic congestion in some parts of the city, according to the Albuquerque Journal. And Albuquerque is facing the same staffing issues that plague many restaurants across the county.
There were 279,000 restaurant-related searches in Arlington, TX in March 2021, up 69% Y-o-Y and up 62% from January 2020. Fast-food, Chinese and Mexican restaurants were the top searched for categories, while Wingstop, McDonald’s, and Subway were the most popular chains searched in Google.
Miami ranks 8th in our charts with restaurant-related searches in March 2021 up 114% Y-o-Y and up 62% compared to January 2020, the first full-length pre-pandemic month. Chinese restaurants, fast-food, seafood, Italian, and brunch places were the most commonly searched for keywords in the restaurant category.
While the pandemic has impacted the local restaurant scene, it was not nearly as bad as in New York or San Francisco. Many restaurateurs in the North East have opened new places in South Florida, Miami, and Broward County in particular, turning Miami into America’s hottest dining destination. Miami is one of the best places to sample the amazing food that Florida is well known for.
There were over 460,000 restaurant-related searched in Detroit in March 2021. This was up 87% Y-o-Y and up 60% compared to January 2020, the last full-length month prior to the pandemic. Chinese, soul food and fast food were the most commonly searched for keywords in the category, while McDonald’s, Subway, and Taco Bell was the most searched restaurants chains.
Recently rising Covid cases is a new blow for the local restaurant industry as indoor dining it was again recommended to pause, though, reportedly, the majority continue to stay open.
Baltimore ranked 10th in our rankings with restaurant-related searches in March 2021 up 93% Y-o-Y and up 60% compared to January 2020. Chinese food followed by fast food and seafood were the most popular keywords in the category, while McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Subway were the most searched for restaurant chains.
Restaurants were allowed to open at full capacity (with social distancing measures in place) on March 12th, which assured the public that eating out was safe again. However, one common denominator we’ve seen in all the top 10 cities was a serious staffing shortage and Baltimore is no exception. This will likely slow down the revival of the restaurant industry.
10 Cities Where Restaurant-Related Searches Have Recovered the Slowest
With much of the month of March 2021 under the red tier (indicating “substantial” risk of infection), San Francisco fared the worst among the most populous 50 cities in the US. The number of restaurant-related searches in March 2021 was up 46% Y-o-Y but substantially down on pre-pandemic levels as it was down compared to both February 2020 (-20%) and January 2020 (-24%).
On the bright side, March 2021 was the month with the highest number of restaurant-related searches since the pandemic began, signaling the start of the recovery. As coronavirus restrictions are easing up and vaccination rates grow, many more local restaurants are starting to reopen, which will speed up the recovery.
However, some neighborhoods like Downtown San Francisco, which depend greatly on office workers, will most likely lag behind other areas given that many local employers are allowing their staff to work permanently from home (or offer other flexible working arrangements).
Restaurants in Washington D.C. had a terrible year, having to not only deal with a pandemic but also with protests, insurrection, and inauguration restrictions. Restaurant-related searches in March 2021 were up only 28% Y-o-Y and well below pre-pandemic levels (down 17% compared to February 2020 and down 20% compared to January 2020).
Employment for the restaurant industry was down almost 54% locally (Feb 2020 through Jan 2021), and twice as many restaurants shut their doors for good compared to pre-pandemic levels. On the bright side, March 2021 saw the highest number of restaurant-related searches since the start of the pandemic, though a surge in restaurant re-openings and customers may exacerbate an already existing staffing crisis.
In March 2021, restaurant-related searches in Boston were at their highest level since the pandemic started, but that was still below pre-pandemic levels (down 3% compared to Feb 2020 and down 2% compared to January 2020). The surge in searches and customers came too late for some, especially in areas that were dependent on students, office workers, and sports fans. But for those that survived the pandemic, warm weather, increased vaccination and a reviving tourism sector brings hope of an accelerated recovery.
New York’s restaurant industry has probably never had it so bad, so it’s no surprise to see New York ranking at the bottom of our charts. On the bright side, restaurant-related searches in March 2021 were at their highest levels since the pandemic started. But that was still 2% down on January 2020, the last full-length month prior to the start of the pandemic.
The local restaurant industry has a lot of ground to make up, as revenues dropped 50% for the vast majority of establishments in the city. And while easing restrictions, good weather, and high vaccination rates gets many excited, there is still lots of uncertainty and anxiety about returning office workers and how that will impact the restaurant scene, particularly in Manhattan.
Chef’s Pencil has analyzed Google Adwords data for restaurants-related searches (e.g. restaurants near me, Chinese food near me, KFC near me ) for the largest 50 cities in the US. Period analyzed was January 2020 (last standard-length month prior to the pandemic) through March 2021.
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