Around 14 percent of US restaurants have closed their doors since the onset of the pandemic with the figure rising to around 25 percent for sit-down eateries.

That's according to consultants at Boston-based Bain & Company who carried out in-depth and wide ranging research commissioned by Sysco, the world's largest foodservice distributor, on how the United States and other foodservice markets have fared during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fourteen percent is less bad than people forecast nine months ago, but it's still a profound shock,” said Chris Bierly, who heads Bain's Global Restaurant Practices team, during a webinar to present the data.

There is no one global context for COVID, with the situation being highly fluid.

GDP hits hard

While COVID-19 was more successfully contained in much of Asia, the pandemic had a significant macroeconomic impact, spreading quickly to Europe where Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contraction has been especially severe, with wide variations in unemployment across countries.

GDP effects in 2020 were significantly worse than pretty much everywhere compared with the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, Bierly noted.

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Around the world this led to a sharp global decline in restaurant sales, and wide regional variations based on the public health context, the public policy response - such as how strict lockdowns were - and consumer outlooks.

While the impact in the United States is pretty clear, the global decline in restaurant sales varied significantly by region depending on epidemiology, public policy, and consumer response, with government responses and consumer attitudes between Massachusetts and California and Texas and Florida profoundly different on food safety, take away, indoor and outdoor eating.

But wherever they were, as events unfolded a significant number of permanent restaurant closures disproportionately impacted independents and full-service businesses, with limited-service brands seeing much more rapid recovery and full-service experiencing persistent, steeper declines.

"Greater shocks were felt in full-service and greater ones still in independent full-service dining. In many markets restaurants are still experiencing a shock to their business," Bierly said.

Direct COVID fear receded

Initially consumers were discouraged by the fear of contracting coronavirus from contaminated kitchens but this receded.

"When it became clear around the summer-ish period that you really don't get COVID because maybe someone in the kitchen had had it, limited-service started to bounce back," Bierly said.

But US and UK foodservice sales continued to face year-on-year declines in late 2020 due to difficulties in containing cases.

From a peak fall of 52 percent in foodservice sales in March 2020 in the United States, sales were down 21 percent in December.

UK foodservice sales were down 89 percent in March last year and in the year ending December 2020 were down 55 percent from a year earlier.

This contrasts with China and Australia where the worst falls were around 50 percent in a single month in 2020, while foodservice sales ended the year close to flat compared with the final month of 2019.

While China was initially the epicenter of the COVID pandemic, strict restrictions and high testing rates contained the pandemic and enabled a “new normal” reopening.

Australia imposed strict measures in response to the initial outbreak and second wave, containing COVID and allowing the economy to reopen in most areas.

Israel has experienced an especially broad outbreak, but an aggressive vaccination program has begun to reduce new cases.

Bierly said he wouldn't be surprised to see case rates remain high while people return to eating as vaccination programs are increasingly rolled out.