Wray Executive Search – Restaurants: A Simple Reason for why Restaurants Have Been Posting Negative Traffic; And Other Lessons Learned Recently

by John A. Gordon, Principal and Founder, Pacific Management Consulting Group

What has been learned through the end of Q1 earnings:

Although surveys of consumer tightening of restaurant spending are everywhere (traffic oriented ), sales have generally kept pace, very strong at some concepts.  Looking at reported restaurant results in Q1, one sees only a handful of real problems, pizza for one.

What most concerns me is the reports from analysts that have an international credit card in their company that they can tap into (for example, Sara Senatore, Bank of America) that show May spending has continued weak in QSR pizza, casual dining has just turned weak. QSR x pizza is up slightly month over month and fast casual is slowing down.[1]

So, Q1 brand reported sales have kept up because of average ticket growth continuing.  Food at-home inflation (8.6% in April with a May report coming soon) is substantial and is powering sales, and beating out somewhat moderating cost inflation at the same time.   That helped margins. One interesting matter to keep a watch on is the tip function now added in so many places to POS units may be distorting the consumer food away from home CPI measure higher. As we all know, restaurants do not keep tips but customers may remember what they pay.

My working thesis remains that while there will be some brands that will suffer from mismanagement, lack of new product new news, and deteriorating demographics, those will be finite. We will not see the industry-wide declines ala the 2008-2009 recession this time.

Another important development is that the IPO window has finally reopened. As discussed here many times, there were several latent IPOs ready to go, waiting for optimum market conditions. The very important VIX rate, the CBOT measure of daily stock trading volatility, finally settled down and was close to ideal levels in late May. CAVA, the fast-casual, 253-unit bowl concept was the first to file its S-1, and its roadshow began last week. CAVA will debut this week on Thursday in a $19 to 20 range, upgraded once. Panera’s confidential filing was next noted, and FAT Brands’ signal to launch an IPO of Twin Peaks was noted last week. CAVA has strong demographics, SSS trends, and restaurant margins (20%) but operates at a prior-year loss that will disappear with debt payoff. The funds raised for all these IPOs will be used for general purposes, including paying down debt. There will be more, Fogo de Chao and others.

Restaurant Op-Tempo Conditions:  Among the company-owned concepts, there was more mention of concern of new unit ROI with rising construction costs, and more modest store development targets. On the franchise development front, development activity should be closely watched for those brands with listless marketing and new product activity.

Subway/Doctor’s Associates Auction Goes On…and On…

In February we learned that JP Morgan became the exclusive listing agent for Subway/DAI, the franchisor. Founders Fred DeLucia and Dr. Peter Buck kicked off Subway with a single sub sandwich unit in 1965 and had grown to some 43,000 by 2022. While an amazing American restaurant growth story, Subway picked up immense difficulties during its years that now hobble its franchisees, current management, and potential buyers. JP Morgan hoped for a $10 billion price, or about a 12.5X multiple of $800M adjusted EBITDA.

Several developments in Subway’s past have proven to be difficult over time. The first was the mindless overdevelopment and self-cannibalization in the US fostered by its development agent structure and endless expansion in the US. Yes, there really does become a point of too much. That and then coupled with a 15-year period of discounting and a listless new product and new concept period, both before and after DeLucia’s death equals a store-level economics disaster. Of course, Subway reveals no Item 19 numbers in the FDD, but the last external research I saw was an EBITDAR (not EBITDA) of 10.5% in 2019. The franchisees closed 6000 units in the US since 2015. The rate of net closings has declined but 2023 is still expected to be a net negative. [2]

John Chidsey of Burger King fame was hired as Subway CEO In late 2019. His chief accomplishments to date have been the “Subway Series”, a series of preset Subway sandwiches that they are advertising via expensive sports personalities. They have boasted that same-store sales are up and have recovered in absolute terms to that of 2012 (no typo). In addition, Subway signed an impressive 13 international master franchise agreements, including a large China agreement last week.

The problem with 2012 is that a whole decade of inflation coverage in the AUV is missing. On June 8, 2023, Jonathan Maze published Technomic numbers showing that Subway was dead last, number 500 of 500 in AUV loss in 2022 (estimated) versus a 2012 base with inflation included. [3]

Back to the auction: The auction began in February and attracted interest from private equity funds. Strategic purchasers, such as YUM Brands or RBI, had taken a look years earlier and passed; today much higher interest rates may be a show-stopper for them. According to press reports, Advent Capital, Roark Capital, and Sycamore Capital are still looking. JP Morgan offered up a $5B floor loan to get things started, with a 15% interest rate. The process was to have concluded by June 1, now it is later per press reports.

Key auction considerations issues going forward are: (1) can the PE firms fund this deal profitably with possibly a 15% interest rate or higher?  (2) Subway just announced a big China development agreement. What is the potential brand strength in China and elsewhere X-US? (3) How will the PEs exit their investment?  Does Subway have the potential to be a publicly traded company in 6 years? The PEs would desire to buy in at say, 8 times adjusted EBITDA and then exit at 13 times via an IPO. That would be a win/win. But is that even possible? No one just gives money away for nothing. For more comments on the issues of a potential Subway IPO, see Jonathan Maze, “Would Subway be better off going public?”[4]

My opinion: I can see how some kind of deal gets cobbled together at some interest rate, but the risk is stress on the brand, the CEO, the franchisees, the employees, suppliers, and the corporate infrastructure would be immense, with debt service potentially gobbling much cash flow. We have seen this movie before.

The lessons from Subway? Don’t overexpand in the US mindlessly; don’t let your concept and product development fall asleep;  start your international development sooner; put a lot of attention to your franchisee store-level economics.

Roundup of Restaurant Vitals Observed:

The US Economy dodged a huge bullet…with the debt deal that passed the House and Senate in time and was signed by the President. No matter your political outlook, this serious crisis was never about the US Government cash flow (we had it)..but about government Obligation Authority. OA is the permission to use the funds we have. It is solved for two years. The consequences of failure to us, who rely on consumer confidence and debt, would have been disastrous.

Food Commodities: Foodstuffs except beef moving in a favorable trend. Beef will be a problem. Some manufacturing, transport, and distribution costs are in better shape. Hat Hip: David Maloni

New concept unit growth patterns are seen everywhere: coffee, chicken, and taco themes. Source: NRN, Technomic Top 500, indies in the field per field trips.


One of the reasons for negative restaurant traffic is…. US unit saturation. Too many restaurants, both chains, and indies. We see the units open number every month/quarter and year. By and large, that number is stable or up 1-2% per year in store count. A few brands are shrinking, like Subway, Hardees, and Burger King. Some of the casual diners earlier. We can pretty well predict which brands will shrink. We did have shrinkage in 2020 but that was swallowed into the chaos of the 2020/2021 base. But it was not enough. Unit count growth has exceeded US population growth for years.

Black Box Intel recapped this observation on May 18, urging brands to differentiate themselves a much as possible in terms of guest and employee experience.  Seems logical. This is why I support that low-yielding marketing and advertising spending come out to make room for the new.



John A. Gordon is a veteran restaurant industry analyst and management consultant. He has 6 years of field operations, 20 years of corporate staff financial planning and analysis roles, and the last 20 years at his founded restaurant analysis consultancy, Pacific Management Consulting Group. He works on complex analysis projects for restaurant operators of all types, investors, attorneys, and others who need answers about restaurants. Call him at 858 874-6626, or email jgordon@pacificmanagementconsultinggroup.com for an initial discussion.


[1]   Bank of America Restaurants Spending Note, June 12, 2023

[2]    Per CEO interview at Restauant Leadership Conference , 2023.

[3]   Restauant Business Online, Jonathan Maze, june 8 2023 (paywall).

[4]  Id, June 12, 2023 (paywall)