However, it wasn’t all bad news as the Coffer Peach Business Tracker, which includes data from more than 30 pub and restaurant groups, also found that drink-led businesses had the best of festive trading.
CGA vice-president Peter Martin said: “The public still went out to eat and drink, but essentially it was a repeat of last Christmas.
“Better trading in the second half of the festive season, when people were mainly off work, failed to provide enough of a boost to beat 2016’s overall numbers.”
The results, which covered the six weeks to 7 January, showed that managed pub groups did better than casual-dining restaurants, delivering a small increase in trade with collective like-for-like sales up 0.6% on last year. But restaurant chains saw collective like-for-likes down 1%.
Generally poor trading
Martin added: “It looks like people were more willing to go out and drink than eat this festive season, with drink-led pubs and bars having the best of trading.
“Across the managed pub market, drink sales were up 1.8% while food was down 1.4%. Food-led operations, both pubs and restaurants, generally had a worse Christmas than 2016.”
Though London and the rest of the country overall turned out flat, the capital saw a bigger contrast in fortunes between restaurants and pubs, with casual dining down 2.6% inside the M25 and pubs up 1.5%.
Martin said: “Looking across the six week period, the run-up to the holidays saw generally poor trading, with the snow in particular hitting sales.
“Trading picked up in the last three weeks either side of the core holidays. Every year the Christmas period seems to be becoming more concentrated.
“Although the sector will be disappointed it didn’t beat 2016’s numbers, the results do reflect the flat trading we have seen in the market over the past year and they also come on the back of increases for the past two Christmases.”
Coffer Corporate Leisure managing director Mark Sheehan said: “Despite very negative press, particularly associated with restaurant sector trading, the eating and drinking out market is not in free fall.
“Trading over the important December trading period was flat, with pubs trading better than restaurants.
“There is no question that the trading environment is competitive, but these numbers are not the car crash that has been widely portrayed. The current year will be a challenging and we expect to see pubs and bars trading more robustly than restaurants.”
The rise in drinks sales was not enough to boost spend across the festive period, according to RSM head of leisure and hospitality Paul Newman.
“Increased drinks spend across the managed pub market over the festive period was not enough to offset disappointing casual dining like-for-likes, rounding off a flat year for the sector and failing to give operators Christmas cheer,” said Newman
“Since the new year, a number of high-profile brands have already announced site closure plans and, with consumer confidence waning and uncertainty ahead of Brexit, we expect our restructuring teams to be kept busy in the months ahead.”
The companies included in the tracker were:
Mitchells & Butlers (owner of Harvester, Toby Carvery, Miller & Carter and All Bar One)
Whitbread (owner of Beefeater, Brewers Fayre and Table Table)
The Restaurant Group (owner of Frankie & Benny's, Chiquito and Brunning & Price)
Casual Dining Group (owner of Café Rouge, Bella Italia and Las Iguanas)
Stonegate (owner of Slug & Lettuce, Yates’ and Walkabout)
Hall & Woodhouse
The New World Trading Company
Peach Pub Co
Le Bistrot Pierre
Laine Pub Co
All Star Lanes
Le Pain Quotidien
The Snug Bar and Downing