While 2012 has been an up and down year, it seems as if the restaurant industry is poised to finish strong if the U.S. Commerce Department's November sales results are any indication.

The U.S. Census Bureau's advance estimate of total retail sales increased 0.3 percent in November compared to a drop by the same amount in October. Excluding auto sales, November retail sales were flat. Due to falling gas prices, retail sales without gasoline were up 0.8 percent. Compared to November last year, total retail sales increased 3.7 percent

Sales at restaurants and bars were up 0.8 percent in November vs. October on a seasonally adjusted basis. This takes into account number of days in the month, weekends and holidays. On the same basis, restaurants and bar sales increased 5.9 percent over November 2011. The increase so far this year is 7 percent.

Assuming that the sales numbers are at least roughly correct, and that the estimate of food away from home prices are up 2.5 percent to 3 percent is also at least in the ball park, there should be a couple percentage points of real growth this year.

Other good news in the report was that the Census Bureau revised October restaurant and bar sales up to +5.2 percent from the advance estimate of +4.2 percent.

The caveats on the government sales numbers are that they are not adjusted for menu price inflation, are frequently revised, and cover only restaurants and bar sales. Lodging, recreation and "institutional" sales are not included.

Economic News This Week

  • Initial jobless claims fell by 29,000 for the week ending Dec. 7 to 343,000. Many economists and others who watch the labor market feel that if the number of new claims is less than 350,000 that it could indicate an increase in total employment. However, as we have been warned for over a month, seasonal hiring and the impact of Hurricane Sandy have fouled up the numbers and it will take until mid-January for a clear direction to emerge.
  • Looking at the payroll to population rate is another way of measuring the health of the economy. The Gallup Organization surveys individuals who are more than 18 years of age and work at least 30 hours a week. In November, the index was 43.7 percent, the lowest in the last six months.
  • The Producer Price Index fell 0.8 percent in November according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The decline was driven mostly by energy price drops, especially gasoline. Core prices, which exclude food and energy, grew by 0.1 percent. Food prices were up 1.3 percent, the largest monthly increase in a year and a half. Vegetables prices rose 12 percent and beef prices were up 8.2 percent.
  • The Consumer Price Index dropped 0.3 percent with fuel prices down 7.4 percent. Food away from home prices were up 0.1 percent, the same increase as last month. In the last 12 months food away from home prices are up 2.6 percent.
  • Industrial production increased 1.1 percent in November after a 1 percent drop in October, according to the Federal Reserve. Concerns about taxes and government spending as well world economic problems may be causing companies to delay equipment purchases.
  • The N.Y. Federal Reserve's Manufacturing Index fell to minus 8.1 in December after coming in at minus 5.2 in November. Both new orders and shipments declined while the labor index stayed negative. December marks the fifth straight month the N.Y. Fed's manufacturing gauge was in negative territory.
  • Small business owners have retreated on capital expenditure intentions. The net difference between those who are increasing spending vs. those who are decreasing capital expenditures in November was a minus 14 according to the quarterly Wells Fargo/Gallup study. This is the lowest level since July 2010.
  • Christmas sales reports vary with a lot of retailers not saying anything. The latest Neilson Holiday Survey found an increase in the number of consumers who say they plan on spending more this year than last. Fifty four percent of those surveyed said they have not begun their shopping yet.

Foodservice News This Week

  • New York Restaurants hit by Sandy are getting a break. The NY Times reports the city Department of Health has pushed back health inspections until next year. In the meantime, inspectors will act in an "advisory capacity."
  • Which companies pay the least to their employees? A group called the National Employment Law Project said they know and listed Darden, Wendy's, Dine Equity, Starbucks, Burger King, McDonald's and YUM! in the top 12. The group's website was vague on the methodology as well as who their officers are and who finances the organization.
  • America's Disappearing Restaurant Chains were listed by 24/7 Wall Street. The chains and the percentage of decline in the number of units are Blimpie (60.1 percent), Ponderosa/Bonanza (63.5 percent), Big Boy (65.4 percent), Don Pablo's (71 percent),Tony Roma's (71.6 percent), TCBY (77.2 percent), Damon's (78.1 percent), Country Kitchen (79.1 percent), Ground Round (80.9 percent), and Bennigan's (88.2 percent).
  • McDonald's is urging store owners to operate on Christmas. An article in Ad Age implies that McD's higher than expected sales results in November may be due at least in part to units staying open on Thanksgiving Day.
  • A really green Applebee's opened in Harlem this month. What is called the "greenest" restaurant in New York City – "and perhaps the country – features waterless urinals, a cistern system to collect rain water for toilets that do need flushing, a white painted roof to reflect heat, and a "living wall" made up of 100's of plants. The owner, Apple-Metro Inc. calls the restaurant a "new standard."
  • New restaurant designs are popping up all over according to the Los Angeles Times. An article details upgraded new restaurants from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Panda Express, Domino's and Del Taco.
  • Growth Chains: Burger King announced their Mexican franchisee will be opening "several hundred" additional units over the "next several years." Schlotzsky's plans on adding 50 restaurants in 2013. Cinnabon will open 200 new units domestically and internationally. Jersey Mike's Subs will open 13 units in Nebraska in the next 5 years. Papa Murphy's plans on opening +100 stores in 2013. Justin Timberlake's Southern Hospitality plans a "30 city expansion.
  • Comparable Store Sales Reports: CKE (Blended up 4.6 percent, Carl's Jr. up 5.5 percent, and Hardee's up 3.6 percent) and Dave & Buster's (up 3.9 percent).

For details and comparable store sales for other chains click here.