Consumers who purchase food for in-home consumption have generally experienced higher price increases relative to what they pay for menu items at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants—a trend that makes restaurants more comparatively appealing, according to Nick Cole, Head of Restaurant Finance at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG).
This is one of several key viewpoints in Cole's mid-year outlook on the restaurant industry, which also includes the abatement of labor shortages, disruptions in the beef supply, high real-estate utilization, and a potential acceleration in mergers and acquisitions (M&A).
Lower food inflation seen at restaurants
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) indicated that the food-away-from-home CPI (restaurant purchases) rose 7.4 percent for the year ended April 2022. In contrast, the food-at-home CPI (grocery and supermarket food purchases) was 11.9 percent higher for the year ended May 2022.
"Restaurant chains have been able to achieve lower food-price increases and delay the effect of inflation thanks to a number of advantages they enjoy," Cole says. Restaurants' advantages include:
- Access to ingredients at wholesale prices and economies of scale;
- The ability to lock in lower prices through forward contracts and other hedging strategies; and
- The flexibility to reallocate ingredients among menu items.
As Cole explains, many restaurants have also been able to sustain profitability by raising their menu prices at agreeable levels to offset the higher input costs of labor, utilities, construction, and food commodities.
Labor shortages less acute
Restaurant labor shortages have stabilized this year, though they still linger and continue to trigger disruptions, according to Cole. Food-delivery drivers are in particularly short supply, impacting delivery-intensive restaurants such as pizza chains.
"Large online retailers attracted a significant amount of labor at restaurants' expense during the pandemic, yet many of the jobs they filled require little training and are designed for high turnover," Cole adds. "Therefore, we believe the restaurant industry will be able to pull back many workers with the right mix of incentives."
Beef supply, real estate utilization, and M&A
Additionally, Cole notes the following top industry trends:
- Disruptions in the beef supply are putting related restaurant businesses at risk because of the longer cycle of beef gestation, cultivation and ultimate provision, as opposed to such commodities as poultry and fish, which are characterized by a shorter supply cycle.
- Restaurant dining venues have returned to full capacity, yet chains continue to benefit from having retooled their real estate and technological infrastructure to accommodate drive-through traffic and online orders.
- M&A activity slowed in the first quarter because of margin pressures due to rising commodity prices, workforce shortages, and the need for higher expenditures to attract labor, as Cole and his team had anticipated in November 2021—yet they expect M&A activity to pick up as the year progresses.