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Eating at a restaurant roars back from the COVID-19 pandemic: survey

Splurging on a night out at a restaurant is coming back in fashion for some, according to a new survey from Evercore ISI.

The survey found a COVID-era record 74% of people say they are comfortable eating at a restaurant, above the prior high of 70% last summer. "We believe much of this increase is due to the recent 94% reduction in COVID cases in the U.S. Importantly, COVID fatigue also seems to be impacting comfort levels — comfort is higher than at any point in time since the start of the pandemic despite cases being 2-3x higher than summer 2021 and vaccine efficacy being lower than in the past," explained the survey's author and analyst David Palmer.

Despite the return of diners to restaurants, investors remain hesitant to eat up stocks in the space.

Shares of sit-down restaurant chains Darden (-8%), Denny's (-9%), Brinker International (-17%) and Dine Brands (-3%) have all lagged the S&P 500's modest gain the past month. The S&P 500 Restaurant Index is down close to 4% over the same stretch.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/07/04: IHOP logo seen at one of their restaurants. (Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
IHOP logo seen at one of their restaurants. (Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Fast-food restaurant stocks have also been hit, with McDonald's down 4% and Wendy's off by 2% in the last four weeks.

There are likely a few factors holding back more bullish sentiment ensuing on restaurant stocks, sentiment that is more in line with the return of physical diners.

Grab a $50 steak in a restaurant lately?
Grab a $50 steak in a restaurant lately?

First, sales comparisons for most players in the space are tough — reflecting the spending of stimulus checks when the pandemic was still raging a year ago. In turn, the sector could be teed up to deliver sales slowdowns over the next two quarters much to the surprise of the market.

And two, soaring gas prices has weakened consumer confidence. Oftentimes, that isn't a recipe for strong results out of restaurants as diners reassess discretionary spending.

Palmer even points to the Russia-Ukraine crisis as holding back sentiment on restaurant stocks.

"Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, food input costs have returned to record highs on oil and crop supply fears. The initial investor response appears to have been to move towards traditional safe-haven assets, favoring packaged food above our various restaurant companies," said Palmer.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and anchor at Yahoo Finance. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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