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Recession Puts Dent in U.S. Restaurant Count
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From Sarah E. Lockyer of Nation's Restaurant News: The total number of restaurant locations in the United States shrunk during the past year, as smaller chains and independents in particular had difficulty weathering the economic storm.

According to the latest NPD Group ReCount, which tallies all commercial restaurant locations in the United States, the number of restaurants fell 1 percent this spring to 577,178 locations. A little more than 4,000 restaurants were closed from a year ago, when the United States boasted 581,201 restaurants, according to NPD research. The latest data was collected from April 1, 2008, to March 31, 2009.

The hardest-hit categories were fine-dining independents, which saw unit counts fall 7 percent. Smaller family-dining chains were close behind, with a 6-percent drop in locations among chains of between 50 and 99 units and a 5-percent drop in locations among chains that numbered between 100 and 499 locations.

“It’s clear that independent restaurants and smaller chains have been most impacted by the slower economy,” said Susan Kleutsch, director of product development for foodservice at The NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. “The recession appears to have weeded out restaurants performing poorly prior to the economic downturn, and this seems most true for independents and smaller chains that are likely having a hard time competing with the resources and marketing power of major chains.”

Restaurants have been battling such economic pressures as slowed sales from reduced consumer spending and increased operating costs, especially for commodities, as well as higher rent and labor expenses. The past year has brought high-profile unit closures at such chains as Bennigan’s, Steak & Ale, Ruby Tuesday and Ryan’s Grill Buffet & Bakery.

The largest chains, which NPD classifies as those with more than 500 units, posted unit growth in all segments except family dining, where growth remained flat. Among the largest chains, the number of total restaurant locations rose 1 percent, reflecting a 1-percent uptick in quick-service locations and a 2-percent increase in casual-dining restaurants.

In Nation’s Restaurant News 2009 Top 100 report, which covers the largest of restaurant chain operations ranked by total domestic foodservice sales, the aggregate restaurant unit count hit 195,227 for those ranked Nos. 1-100 in size, a 1.6-percent increase from a year ago. Read More 

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