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How Covid helped Olive Garden and Chipotle dominate the restaurant business

Big chains, even vulnerable ones like casual dining establishments, have fared a lot better than small restaurants and independents, thanks in large part to easier access to cash and the ability to lean on parent companies to lead the way on strategic shifts. In 2021, the top 500 restaurant chains accounted for 63% of total US restaurant sales, up from 58% in 2019, according to restaurant consulting firm Technomic.

They’re now in a position of strength, poised to fill the gap left by restaurants that didn’t survive.

“The pandemic caused a lot of small independents to go out of business,” said Joe Pawlak, managing principal at Technomic. They “didn’t have the financial wherewithal [or] sophistication to make it through.”

Access to capital and economies of scale allowed large chains to dip deeper into pockets and make strategic shifts that set them up for success today. Many smaller operators didn’t have that option.

That upended…

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