The NRA's Restaurant Performance Index may have shown a relatively flat industry but foodservice professionals still have a few reasons to be optimistic.

The National Restaurant Association reported that its Restaurant Performance Index fell 0.2 percent to 99.7 in December. The Current Situation component fell 0.7 percent to 99.1 while the Expectation Index inched up 0.3 percent to 100.3. One major area of weakness was in the Current Situation Index with 48 percent of the operators in the survey reporting a decline in their December traffic while just 31 percent reporting an increase. There was a slight difference between operators who said comparable store sales grew (42 percent) and those who reported a decline (38 percent).

As far as their sales expectations in the next 6 months, 37 percent are looking for an increase vs. 16 percent looking for them to drop. As they have for the last 3 months, a greater number of restaurateurs expect overall economic conditions to worsen rather than improve (29 percent vs. 17 percent).

As far as operators' investments, 45 percent of those surveyed reported they made a capital expenditure for equipment, expansion and/or remodeling in the past 3 months while 50 percent of operators plan on making capital investments in the future. This is up from 45 percent in November.

Thus, while the overall result of the survey shows a virtually flat market, there is some reason for hope in the future.

Economic News This Week:

  • The U.S. Department of Commerce's fourth quarter gross domestic product report provided a nasty shock this past week with the advance estimate coming in at minus 0.1 percent annual growth rate. At the heart of the decline were drops in government spending, wholesale inventories and falling exports. Most observers didn't panic, noting that business investment and consumer spending levels were decent. The Federal Reserve referred to the findings as a pause in the recovery. If future GDP estimates remain the same, the increase for all of 2012 will be a rather anemic 2.2 percent growth. In 2011 GDP grew 1.8 percent. The Wall Street Journal noted that the Fed's initial GDP forecast for 2012 was up 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent.
  • First-time jobless claim filings jumped 38,000 to 368,000 in the week ending January 25. This follows consecutive weeks in the 330,000 range. The less volatile 4-week average of claims is 352,000. Most reports continue to mention seasonal quirks in the data through January.
  • Payroll management company ADP reported that the economy added 192,000 new jobs in January. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees hired 115,000 employees, mid-size firms (50-499 employees) added 79,000 employees and those firms with 500 employees or more dropped 2,000 workers. ADP's estimates are frequently quite different from the "official" government numbers.
  • Government employment data for January indicated an increase of 157,000 jobs. The private sector added 166,000 jobs while government jobs fell by 9,000. Unemployment crept up a notch to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent. If the underemployed are counted (i.e., those working part time who would prefer full time work) the unemployment rate exceeds 14 percent. If discouraged workers, those who have given up finding a job, are counted the rate is more than 18 percent. The good news is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has revised 2012 monthly job increases up to 180,000 from the previously reported 153,000 monthly average. So, the White House says the economy is slowly healing in what the Wall Street Journal calls a plodding pace.
  • Personal income for December rose a strong 2.6 percent according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. This is the biggest increase since May 2008. Some observers noted that the increase was driven by one time dividend payments and doubted if the increase will cause many consumers to open their wallets.
  • Personal spending rose 0.2 percent in December which was pretty much the consensus forecast.
  • The Chicago Federal Reserve's Production Manufacturing Index rose to 55.6 in January after being in negative territory in December at 48.9. This was the best showing in 9 months.
  • The Institute for Supply Management Production Manufacturing Index improved substantially in January, rising to 53.1 from a barely positive level of 50.2 in December. Production, new orders and labor all increased last month.
  • Construction spending rose 0.9 percent in December according to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce. For all of 2012 residential construction spending increased 22 percent.
  • The direction consumer sentiment is going depends on who is asked. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence fell significantly in January to 58.6 from December's reading of 66.7. But, The Reuters/University of Michigan Index rose from their preliminary finding of 71.3 for January to the final report of 73.8. Likewise, The Gallup Organization's weekly U.S. Economic Confidence Index hit a five-year high but still had more respondents saying the economy was deteriorating than improving by 9 points.

Foodservice News This Week:

  • Foodservice employment increased by 17,100 in January accounting for over 10 percent of the new jobs created last month.
  • Super Bowl 47 in New Orleans is in the history books when but one fascinating piece of information about the Crescent City from the all the game hype: New Orleans had 809 restaurants the day before Hurricane Katrina struck but now has 1,332. This is despite the fact that the population has dropped by 25 percent. Restaurants helped the city recover and are an important driver of the economy.
  • Atlanta restaurant sales grew by 5.1 percent in 2012 according to a survey by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. In the fourth quarter last year, 82 percent of those surveyed said their sales increased.
  • Retailers, including supermarkets, mass merchandisers, and warehouse clubs are finding their sales of prepared meals have fallen off as consumers return to restaurants with the improving economy, according to a new Technomic, Inc. study.
  • The Manitowoc Company reported that their foodservice industry equipment sales grew 6.7 percent in their most recent fiscal quarter. (Please see Equipment Supplier Financial Data.)
  • Growth chains: East Coast-based Bobby's Burger Palace will expand to the Midwest, opening their 14th location in the Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati. Little Caesars has announced a new franchise growth plan targeting small suburban markets and rural areas. Veggie Grill plans on doubling the number of their current 16 restaurants in the next 10 months. Ruth's Hospitality Group has signed a development deal to open 4 restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai in the next 3 years.
  • Comparable store sales report: Dunkin' Donuts (up 3.2 percent).

For details and comparable store sales data on other chains, please click here for the Green Sheet.

Click here for Foodservice Industry Supplier Financial Data. This week's report has updated financial information for International Paper Company, The Manitowoc Company, and Newell Rubermaid.