The U.S. economy may be in a funk but the restaurant industry is doing its part to spark growth, according to data released by a variety of independent sources.

The U.S. economy continues to deal with sequestered government funds, weak employment, flagging manufacturing and an overall blah business environment. Yet, despite these conditions, consumers keep eating out — at least that's what several important economic indicators say. Malcolm Knapp's Knapp-Track found comparable store sales in March increased 2.6 percent at the 56 casual dining chains in his study. Mr. Knapp reported comparable store sales declined 0.6 percent in January and 5.2 percent in February. Mr. Knapp added that it appears that April comps will also be up, but not to the same level as they were in March. (Mr. Knapp's data is courtesy of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.)

Last week's National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Performance Index also brought welcome results. The Index exceeded 100, indicating expansion in the market. The Current Situation component reached 99.8, an increase of 1.5 percent. The really good news was that 44 percent of operators reported positive comparable store sales and just 37 percent reporting lower comps. The Future Expectations component stayed even with February but was well in positive territory at 101.4. Perhaps the best news of all was that operators keep spending for new equipment, expansion and/or remodeling. In March 51 percent of the respondents said they had made capital expenditures in the last 3 months, a 3 percent increase from the previous month. And, 56 percent of operators said they plan on making capital expenditures in the next 6 months, which is virtually identical to February's results.

Finally, the advance U.S. Department of Commerce retail sales numbers for March reported that restaurant and bar sales increased 0.7 percent over February and were up 4.3 percent over March 2012. I plan to report the advance April sales results here next week.

Economic News This Week:

  • The U.S. Employment picture remains choppy. ADP, the payroll processing company, said that new jobs increased by 119,000 in April, below the estimated growth rate. ADP also revised its March new jobs number down to 131,000 from the previously reported 158,000. First-time jobless claims dropped to 324,000, a decline of 18,000, for the week ending April 26. This is the second consecutive week initial jobless claims dropped significantly and this represents five-year low. The 4-week average for claims declined to 342,250. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said that the unemployment rate in April dropped to 7.5 percent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also pointed out that the private sector created 176,000 new jobs while government employment dropped by 11,000 for a net growth of 165,000. A look at some of the detailed statistics shows a jump of 278,000 part-time employees. Some observers, including the International Franchise Association, noted there was a significant decline in hours worked in April. Concern is rising about the federal government's continuing sequester of funds on future employment.
  • Home prices continue to increase according to the Schiller/Case report and have grown by 9.3 percent in February of this year vs. February 2012 in the 20 major markets the company studies. But says that Case/Schiller's research is slanted because their 20 targeted areas include too many fast recovery markets and that U.S. home prices are up just 5 percent in the past year. The National Association of Realtors reported that pending home sales grew by 1.5 percent in March, a 7 percent increase compared to March 2012. To show the impact of home building on the overall economy in the U.S. April light truck sales for Chrysler, Ford and GM grew by 49 percent, 24 percent and 23 percent respectively with dealers reporting strong sales to building contractors.
  • Construction spending fell by 1.7 percent in March over February, perhaps due to weather-related problems. Spending was up 4.8 percent over March of last year and March residential construction spending was up 0.7 percent.
  • Car and light truck sales were booming in March with most major manufacturers counting significant gains. The old Detroit "Big Three" reported double digit volume increases with their highly profitable pick up trucks leading the way.
  • The Institute for Supply Management's Manufacturing Index fell to 50.7 from 51.3 in March. This indicates that manufacturing activity is expanding at a very sluggish rate. Production, new orders, and hiring intentions were all down.
  • The Chicago Federal Reserve's Production Manufacturing Index for their area fell into negative growth mode, declining to 49 in April from 52.4 in March. New orders were steady but just at 2012 levels while order backlogs and production were back at 2009 levels.
  • Factory orders declined 4 percent in March, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, but capital goods orders, not including aircraft, rose 0.9 percent.
  • The Institute for Supply Management's Non-manufacturing (Services) Index retreated in April to 53.1, down from 54.4 in March. New orders and employment both declined from the March reading.
  • The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rose sharply in April to 68.1. The Board also revised the March index up to 61.9 after first reporting 59.7. The April leap was driven mostly by a jump from 63.7 in March to 73.3 last month for Future Expectations on the part of consumers. The Present Situation component of the study moved only slightly, going from 59.2 in March to 60.4 in April.

Foodservice News This Week:

  • Restaurants keep hiring. This week the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment research found restaurant and bar employment grew by 37,000. Thus, out of the reported 176,000 new jobs in April in the private sector, restaurants accounted for one fifth of the increase.
  • Sysco, the major foodservice supplier, reported mediocre results for the company's last quarter ending March 30. Sysco's profits declined 22 percent to $201 million on sales volume of $10.9 billion which represented a 4.0 percent increase. Sales from recent acquisitions accounted for 1.8 percent in increased sales while foreign currency exchange rates in the quarter reduced sales by 0.1 percent. Sysco stated that case sales grew by 1.7 percent, including acquisitions, but would have been down 0.2 percent without acquisitions.
  • Technomic reported that sales among the top restaurant chains increased 4.9 percent in 2012, a significant improvement over the 3.5 percent growth in 2011. In dollars, the 500 U.S. chains increased sales by $12 billion. Sales at fast food operations increased 5.6 percent while full-serve restaurants grew by 2.9 percent. Ron Paul, president of Technomic, noted that overall growth rates have not been this high since 2007.
  • Fast food dominates the French restaurant market. The country that gave the world fine dining now finds their citizens spending 54 percent of their restaurant dollars at McDonald's, Subway and other similar operations. The reasons why the French abandoned their famous cafes are many but among them are the famous French lunch hour dropping from 80 minutes 4 decades ago to just 22 minutes now as well as the fast food chains adapting their menus to French tastes.
  • The world's 50 best restaurants, as determined by a panel of food critics, chefs, restaurateurs, and gastronomes include 6 U.S. restaurants. They are; Eleven Madison Park in New York City (no. 5 on the list), Per Se in New York City (no. 11), Alinea in Chicago (no. 15), Le Bernardin in New York City (no. 19), Daniel in New York City (no. 29), and The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., ( no. 47). Number one in the world was El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.
  • The most improved burger chain is Carl's Jr. according to Sandleman & Associates Quick Track Awards of Excellence. Or the most improved is Hardee's as judged by Technomic, Inc. in its "Chains to Watch" report. This is obviously a win-win situation for CKE, parent of both chains.
  • The Detroit area has seen an explosion of fast food restaurants. Local chains like The Big Salad and Zoup are growing as are national operations like TCBY and Checkers according to the Detroit News. At least part of the reason for this expansion is the resurgence of the auto industry, as noted above.
  • Loyalty based on quality, not discounts or promotions, is what brings 42 percent of customers back to restaurants according to a new study by the NPD Group. NPD reported that 26 percent of the respondents did switch around based on promos, 4 percent based their selection on other factors and 19 percent said they seldom eat out.
  • An energy-efficient McDonald's has been built in a suburb of Cleveland. McDonald's executives consider it a test site. It has geo-thermal wells for heating and cooling and 341 solar panels that power the unit during the day. The special installations add approximately $1 million to the construction cost.
  • Growth chains: Smashburger has signed a franchise agreement that will build five restaurants in Panama in the next six years. Sbarro is expanding from food courts in airports and shopping malls and testing two fast-casual restaurants in Columbus, Ohio. Wingstop has signed a development agreement for 20 restaurants in Singapore. Bennigan's plans on opening about 30 new restaurants in the next 2 years. Togo's Sandwich Shops plans on developing 25 restaurants in Arizona.
  • Comparable store sales reports: Applebee's (down 1.3 percent), Arcos Dorados (up 9.9 percent), Bloomin Brands (blended up 1.6 percent, Outback up 2.5 percent, Carrabba's down 1.7 percent, Bonefish Grill up 0.5 percent, and Flemmings up 5 percent), Captain D's (up 1.6 percent), CEC Entertainment (up 1.6 percent), Del Frisco (blended up 0.5 percent, Del Frisco up 1.9 percent, and Sullivan's down 4 percent), Denny's (system down 0.7 percent, company owned down 1.5 percent, and franchised down 0.5 percent), Einstein Noah (down 0.6 percent), Famous Dave's (company owned down 1.8 percent and franchised down 6.1 percent), Good Times Burgers (up 11.4 percent), IHOP (down 0.5 percent), Jamba (system up 1.3 percent, company owned up 3.6 percent, and franchised down 0.9 percent), Mitchell's Fish Market (up 1.5 percent), NPC International (down 2.2 percent), Ruth's Chris (up 6.6 percent) and Wingstop (up 13 percent).

For details and comparable sales reports for other chains, click here for the Green Sheet.

Equipment Supplier Financial Data: quarterly reports for Manitowoc, Newell Rubermaid and Sysco. For complete report, please click here.