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Food service industry in the U.S. - statistics & facts

The United States is home to a lucrative food service industry, which encompasses all businesses that deal with meals prepared outside the home. Unsurprisingly, both full service restaurants (FSRs) and quick service restaurants (QSRs) are part of the food service sector, however, this industry also includes catering companies, hospital and school cafeterias, coffee shops and cafes, and private chefs. Combined, the food service industry is responsible for a wide variety of jobs in the United States. In California alone, the number of U.S. restaurant and food service jobs reached nearly two million in 2019. When broken down by type, the largest share of employment in the U.S. food service industry came from waiters and waitresses in 2019, with private cooks making up the smallest share.

How do private cooks and caterers fit into the U.S. food service industry?

Some of the smaller sectors in the U.S. food service industry include private cooks and catering companies. Though private cooks made up the smallest share of employment in the U.S. food service industry, their wages in a distribution of the hourly wages of U.S. food service employees were some of the highest. Private cooks averaged over 20 U.S. dollars an hour in 2019, outranked only by chefs and head cooks. Another small but lucrative part of the U.S. food service industry is the catering sector. Catering businesses provide food and drink services for a fee at a chosen location, such as a hotel, park, or other event venue. The market size of the U.S. catering sector has fluctuated in recent years, and 2020 saw a drop in market size of over one and a half billion U.S. dollars. That being said, the number of businesses in the U.S. catering sector has risen steadily over the last decade prior to 2020, where a decline was seen.

What is the biggest sector in the U.S. food service industry?

It may come as no surprise that the restaurant sector is the biggest sector in the U.S. food service industry. There were nearly 200 thousand QSR establishments in the U.S. in 2019, a number which grew year over year since 2011. The same year, there were about one sixth as many U.S. FSR establishments. FSRs are primarily focused on providing food services to patrons who order and are served while seated and pay after eating, while at QSRs patrons generally order at a cash register, drive-thru, or food bar and pay before they eat. Of the leading QSR chains in the U.S. by sales, McDonald’s generated by far the most sales in 2019 at over 40 billion U.S. dollars- double that of its closest competitor, Starbucks. Many QSRs have operated delivery services or drive-thrus for years. These became vital during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020 when seated indoor dining was severely restricted. In 2019, the share of U.S. food service sales made via delivery had already reached eight percent, a number that is likely to increase as a result of the pandemic.


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