the chain gang

America’s Independent Restaurants Are Closing at an Alarming Rate

One of the fallen. Photo: Richard B. Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

This past year saw plenty of hand-wringing by restaurateurs — the industry is in recession thanks to an uptick in labor costs, consumers opting for delivery, and fears in general about the future of U.S. democracy. But a new data set from an industry tracker adds some depressing additional context, if you consider America to be maxed out on burger-flipping chains: The number of restaurants fell by 2 percent nationwide in 2016, according to this report by market-research firm NPD Group, which says this puts the per-capita tally of places where Americans can eat “at its lowest level in the past ten years.” The group did find one segment invulnerable to the recession, at least in terms of sheer numbers, and it’s chains — more specifically, fast-food chains.

The chains (both fast-casual and full-service) grew by one percent in 2016, for a total of 297,351 units. (So almost half the country’s 620,807 restaurants are now chains.) The worst statistic of all is that the closures have not just impacted independently owned restaurants, but disproportionately ones in the full-service, sit-down segment of the industry. Fast-food chains are seeing runaway success — they grew by 7 percent this past year. NDP completed its count on September 30, 2016, so the number is obviously already outdated by at least a little. The group believes, if anything, the number of independent restaurants “will continue to decline in response to the lower demand.”

Independent Restaurants Closing at an Alarming Rate