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The Top Restaurants for Business Travel Meals

The Top Restaurants for Business Travel Meals

Even when you’re traveling for work, you still need to eat. But, away from their kitchens and favorite local restaurants, where do business travelers turn to fill their stomachs? Fast food or fine dining? National chains or regional favorites?

Our friends at Divvy, an expense management platform, wanted to know so they crunched the numbers. Using Merchant Category Codes for restaurants (5812 and 5814, if you’re interested), they identified the most commonly expensed restaurants in all 50 states.  

So where are business travelers expensing their meals? Let’s dive into the data.

Hungry for more data about how business travelers eat, drink and stay healthy on the road? Check out these other great articles:

Beating Starbucks is a Tall Order

The first thing the data reveals is that Starbucks is the well-caffeinated elephant in the room when it comes to travel expenses in general, and business travel meals in particular. In their first pass with the data, Divvy quickly realized that Starbucks blew the rest of the competition out of the water — it was the most commonly expensed ‘restaurant’ in 32 of the 50 states. 

Interesting, but not necessarily insightful — it’s common knowledge that business travelers need their coffee fix. But it doesn’t really help us understand where business travelers go for meals. 

So, excluding Starbucks, what did the data reveal?

Speed is the Name of the Game

With Starbucks excluded, other fast food chains find their way to the top of the list. Whether business travelers are grabbing a quick bite at the airport, stopping somewhere near their hotel, or picking up a catering order for a group, the vast majority of meals expensed for business are of the fast food variety. 

McDonald’s dominates the business meal market, topping the expensing list in 23 states, (including almost every state in the southwest, west coast,  and Pacific northwest regions. 

Next is Chick-Fil-A, which dominates the south and southeast. 

Coming in third, thanks largely to corporate catering orders, is Panera. The soup, salad, and sandwich chain has a surprisingly broad geographic appeal — it ranked first in states in the southwest, midwest and east coast. 

After that we’re talking longtail — Subway topped the list in two states (Maine and Louisiana, interestingly) while Sweetgreen, Little Caesar’s and Hardee’s each took the top spot in a single state. 

All told, the data makes it clear that speed is the name of the game when it comes to business travel meals. All of the top spots are counter service operations designed to get diners in and out in as little time as possible. Even the lone pizza chain on the list is known for its “hot and ready” options. 

How much are business travelers expensing at the top restaurants?

Total customer volume gives us a good picture of where corporate travelers choose to eat, but the actual cost of those deductible meals and incidental expenses can also give us an indication of why, when and how they’re utilizing these restaurants. 

Here’s what the Divvy data shows about average meal expenses at the top restaurants (and a few that didn’t officially top the list but showed up with relatively high volume. 

Hidden in this data is a pattern revealing how business travelers are approaching dining on the road (and, of course, getting reimbursed).

The restaurants with the lowest average expensing amounts are all traditional burger fast food chains — McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. The low amounts (all under $8) show that these are likely quick, one-person stops — maybe at airports, maybe even just for coffee or a snack. Whether they’re trying to stay under their meal per diem or T&E allowance, or just looking for some quick food and beverages, fast food restaurants reign supreme, and we’ve got the receipts. 

Toward the top end of the list are restaurants that often cater (often literally) to larger numbers of corporate diners — Jimmy John's, Dominos and Panera (all with average T&E expense line items for more than $30. Unless business travelers are eating sandwich platters or large pizzas on their own, these are likely meals for groups of business diners. 

Looking at the data from this perspective, it becomes clear that this is almost a completely different topic. Business travel expenses aren’t only for individuals, they’re also deductible meals for groups of travelers. Divvy’s data shows that individuals getting reimbursed for food and travel expenses are often doing so on the actual cost of a meal for many employees, not just themselves. The cost of meals (and, theortically corporate allowance) for groups is obviously higher than individual meals, so these national catering-focused chains (and those with strong business relationships) are almost in a different category.

The Bottom Line

Understanding which restaurants are luring business travelers and their expense accounts helps us better understand business travel in general. Grabbing a fast food burger at the airport or near their lodging or event venue is a common occurrence in the corporate travel world. These aren’t steak dinners or three-martini lunches, they are something much more prosaic: a glimpse into the grab-and-go life of the modern road warrior. 

About the Author: Mike Baker
Mike is Director of Marketing for Lola.com and a former journalist, farmer and teacher.