On Tuesday, the NPD Group, a Chicago-based market research company, released its spring 2009 report, an annual census of commercial restaurant locations in the United States compiled in the spring and fall each year, which showed a decline of 4,000 restaurants nationwide from the previous year. While this reflects a net loss of only -1% (compared to zero growth a year ago), the breakdown is telling. Major chains were up 1 percent; mid-size chains and independent restaurants declined. The sector showing the sharpest decline won't come as much of a surprise: fine dining.

According to Susan Kleutsch, director of product development-foodservice at NPD, “the recession appears to have weeded out restaurants performing poorly prior to the economic downturn, and this seems most true for independents and smaller chains that are likely having a hard time competing with the resources and marketing power of major chains.”

This comes on the heels of a separate July 20th NPD report showing that total restaurant industry traffic declined -2.6 percent for the 2009 spring quarter, versus the same quarter last year. That figure marked the sharpest decline in industry traffic since 1981.

Chef Suzanne Tracht; Credit: Photo credit: ExperienceLA

Chef Suzanne Tracht; Credit: Photo credit: ExperienceLA

This is hardly news to the restaurant owners, investors and patrons who have noticed declining sales, more sparsely-filled dining rooms, and a string of closings in recent months. Here in Los Angeles, many restaurants are lowering prices and offering specials to buffer the hard times, and so far there haven't been that many high profile closings. But AK, Katsu Beverly Hills and Club Sushi closed recently. And last week Suzanne Tracht's Long Beach chophouse Tracht's closed its doors after opening in 2007.

The numbers can be depressing–or not, if you consider that a few percentage points isn't that much given the broad nature of this “downturn.” Perhaps it's just a form of restaurant Darwinism: Tracht's new eatery, Suzpree, is set to open early next year.

LA Weekly