Flat demand is taking its toll: The total number of U.S. restaurants fell by about one percent from 2014 from 635,000 to just under 631,000 units, according to a count of commercial restaurant locations compiled annually in the spring and fall by The NPD Group.
The biggest losses occurred among independently operated concepts, which dropped by two percent, from 351,433 to 343,652 restaurants. Within that category, full-service independent restaurants fared even worse, shrinking by three percent; quick-service independent restaurants, on the other hand, held their ground.
Biggest gains—no surprise—happened in the fast-casual chain category. Overall, chains grew one percent, from 283,600 to 287,312 units.
NPD traces the decline to flat traffic numbers. Visits to all restaurants were flat for the year, compared to 2013. Visits to quick-service restaurants, which account for four-fifths of all traffic, jumped a mere one percent, while full-service traffic was off by two percent.
The National Restaurant Association’s most recent forecast, released earlier this year, suggests a possible end to the days of flat or declining numbers. According to NRA research, consumers continue to have substantial pent-up demand for restaurant services: 38 percent of consumers say they are not eating on the premises of restaurants as frequently as they would like; 41 percent say they are not purchasing takeout or delivery as often as they would like.
Despite the bleak picture, pockets of growth were evident across the country. The metro areas with the most robust development scene include Las Vegas-Paradise, NV; Cape Coral-Ft. Myers, FL; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA; Boise City-Nampa, ID; and Madison, WI. All welcomed three to four percent more restaurants last year.