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Sales and employment in the food services industry

Does it feel like eating out has changed since the pandemic? Restaurants seem busier than ever, yet they also seem to be facing a great deal of staff shortages. Is this borne out in the data?

FRED collects data on both retail sales and employment for different industries. In this post, we compare data for the Food Services and Drinking Places industry, which contains full- and limited-service restaurants as well as bars. The retail sales data come from the Census Bureau and measure the dollar value of monthly sales nationwide. The employment data come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and measure the number of employed persons.

The graph above combines these two series by dividing retail sales (adjusted for inflation) by employment. The resulting line can be interpreted as the dollar amount of sales per employee, which gives an idea of how much the sector is producing relative to how many people are generating that  output. It’s closely related to what economists call labor productivity.

In the decade before the pandemic, this measure was relatively flat in some periods and growing in others, from around $5,700 in 2010 to around $6,500 at the start of 2020. After a big drop during the pandemic, it quickly bounced back, hitting an all-time high of about $7,700 in July 2021. It’s now hovering around $7,300.

The higher levels are driven by both components: a faster increase in real sales combined with employment only just now returning to its pre-pandemic level. The 2020-2021 numbers were at some points certainly above their pre-pandemic trends, but they appear to be moderating. So the graph seems to confirm that restaurants are producing more than they were before with fewer workers, which could be a part of why the industry has changed so much since the pandemic.

How this graph was created: Search FRED for “Retail Sales: Food Services and Drinking Places.” Next, click the “Edit Graph Button” and under “Customize data” search for “Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items in U.S. City Average.” Then click “Add.” It will appear as series (b). Change the units to “Index (Scale value to 100 for chosen date)” and type in “2023-05-01” as the date. Then, under “Customize data” search for “All Employees, Food Services and Drinking Places” and click “Add.” It will appear as series (c). For “Units,” use “Thousands of Persons.” Next, under “Formula,” combine them as follows: ((100/b)*(a*1000000))/(c*1000). This adjusts the sales data for inflation, puts sales into dollars and employment into numbers of persons. Click “Apply.” Finally, set the lower bound of the date to “2010-01-01” in the upper right above the graph.

Suggested by Victoria Gregory.

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