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U.S. Restaurants Bouncing Back But Will This Trend Hold?

Eating and drinking places added a net 1.3 million jobs during the first seven months of 2021.

The rebuilding of the restaurant workforce continued in July, as robust consumer demand bolstered the industry’s need for employees. Eating and drinking places* added a net 253,200 jobs in July on a seasonally-adjusted basis, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

That was the strongest increase since February (336,600), and represented the third consecutive month with gains above 200,000. For context, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry had never added over 100,000 jobs in a single month. 

In total during the first seven months of 2021, eating and drinking places added a net 1.3 million jobs. That brought the sector within 1 million jobs of returning to its pre-pandemic employment level of 12.3 million.

Limited-service concepts are closest to employment recovery

Employment rose across all restaurant categories in recent months, though none of the major segments are yet able to claim a full return to pre-pandemic staffing levels. [Note that the segment-level employment figures are lagged by one month, so June is the most current data available.]

Between April 2020 and June 2021, fullservice restaurants added more than 3 million jobs on a seasonally-adjusted basis. However, that still left the segment 626,000 jobs (or 11%) below pre-pandemic employment levels.

Staffing levels in the limited-service segment are much closer to their pre-pandemic peaks. As of June 2021, the quickservice and fast casual segments were down 175,000 jobs (or 4%) from pre-pandemic levels. Staffing levels at snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars – including coffee, donut and ice cream shops – were only 22,000 jobs (or 3%) below February 2020 readings.

Other segments have a much longer path to reach pre-pandemic staffing levels. Employment counts in the cafeterias/grill buffets/buffets segment (-55%), foodservice contractor segment (-32%), catering and mobile foodservice segment (-30%) and bars and taverns segment (-24%) are still significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

[Note: The BLS monthly employment dataset measures jobs during the payroll period that includes the 12th of each month. Changes in restaurant staffing levels – both negative and positive – have occurred rapidly during the coronavirus pandemic, as restaurants quickly adjust their operating status in response to evolving regulatory and economic conditions. As a result, significant changes likely occurred during the weeks between each measurement period, and the monthly data may not fully capture the total job losses experienced during the coronavirus lockdowns. Based on surveys of restaurant operators, the National Restaurant Association estimates that more than 8 million eating and drinking place employees were laid off or furloughed during the peak of the lockdowns.] 

*Eating and drinking places are the primary component of the total restaurant and foodservice industry, which prior to the coronavirus outbreak employed 12 million out of the total restaurant and foodservice workforce of 15.6 million.

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