This Week in Foodservice: Consumers Keep Spending and Restaurants Keep Chugging Along

Retail sales in February increased 1.3 percent over January's levels, according to the advance estimate from the U.S. Economic Census. Gasoline sales, up 5 percent, represents the major cause of the increase. Without gasoline, retail sales were up 0.6 percent and without gasoline and autos, retail sales were up 0.4 percent. Compared to February 2012, retail sales were up 4.7 percent.

Restaurant and bars sales in February declined 1.1 percent on an unadjusted basis compared to January. With adjustments for days in the month, weekends and holidays, restaurants and bar sales fell 0.7 percent. Comparing last month to February 2012 sales were up 4.0 percent on an adjusted basis, which is ahead of projected menu price inflation of 3.0 percent. So, despite increased gas prices, higher FICA tax withholding, sequestration of government funds and bad weather, restaurants are showing some real growth.

As always, the data carries with it some considerations and limitations. The sales numbers are advance estimates subject to revision. While the sales numbers are adjusted, where indicated, for monthly variations, there is no allowance made for inflation. The Commerce Department follows only restaurants and bars. The data does not cover hotels and resorts, clubs, retail operators or any of the institutional foodservice operations.

Economic News This Week:

  • Initial jobless claims were 332,000, a decrease of 10,000 for the week ending March 9. This is significantly less than the 350,000 claims that were projected and is the second lowest number of claims in 5 years. The average claims for the last 4 weeks fell to 346,750 which is the lowest average for 5 years. Unlike the large peaks and valleys that marked initial jobless claims since December, labor officials stated that there did not appear to be any unusual factors affecting these latest numbers. And, while 330,000 claims is not a great number based on historical data, it does appear that the number of people losing their jobs is trending in the right direction.
  • The Producer Price Index, sometimes referred to as the wholesale price index, rose 0.7 percent in February, the largest increase in 5 months. Driving the index up was a 7.2 percent increase in gasoline prices. Overall energy prices rose 3 percent. Food prices fell by 0.5 percent chiefly due to a big drop in vegetable prices. The rate of "core" prices – excluding both energy and food prices – increased at a more modest 0.2 percent.
  • The Consumer Price Index also rose 0.7 percent in February, which was the biggest jump since June 2009. Core prices rose 0.2 percent. Consumers paid 9.1 percent more for gasoline last month with overall energy prices up 5.4 percent.
  • Industrial production increased 0.7 percent in February after declining in January. The U.S. Department of Commerce said factory production was up 0.8 percent and utility production rose 1.6 percent due to cold weather. However, in the last 12 months core inflation is up just 2 percent.
  • Capacity utilization increased to 79.6 percent, which the U.S. Commerce Department noted was the highest since March 2008. The theory is high capacity utilization may encourage businesses to expand by investing more in production tools and hiring more employees.
  • The N.Y. Federal Reserve's Index of Manufacturing fell to 9.24 in March from 10.04 in February. The Fed feels that the index shows modest improvement continuing.
  • The Index of Small Business Optimism increased 1.9 points to 90.8 in February, but the study's sponsor, the National Federation of Independent Business, states the index remains on par with the 2008 average and below the low points of recent recessions. The Federation says there is no indication of a "surge in confidence among small business owners."
  • Gallup's U.S. Economic Confidence Index rose from the previous week's minus 22 to minus 17 but stayed well under the 5-year high of minus 8 the Index hit 5 weeks ago.
  • The Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary Consumer Index for March fell to 71.8 from the final February reading of 77.6. The Index is at its lowest point since December 2012.

Foodservice News This Week:

  • The impact of the Affordable Care Act is being seriously addressed by foodservice operators according to the Wall Street Journal. You will recall that Darden, Denny's and Papa John's encountered political flack when they announced, or at least seemed to indicate, they might cut employees and/or hours to pay for the costs of the Affordable Care Act. Now, according to a WSJ article, restaurants like Brinker, Chipotle, Panera, Texas Roadhouse and, yes, Darden are saying they will offset their increased health care costs by more efficient kitchens, better scheduling and training, but also passing on some of the costs through increased menu prices. It would probably be a safe to guess that somewhere along the line some jobs will be lost.
  • The top seven burger chains sales hit $63.5 billion last year according to an estimate by authoritative e-newsletter Burger Business. As Scott Hume, publisher of Burger Business, predicted earlier this year, Burger King's U.S. and Canadian sales did exceed those of Wendy's, $8.94 billion vs. $8.8 billion respectively. McDonald's worldwide sales were better than double the combined sales of the next six chains (Burger King, Wendy's, Sonic, Jack in the Box, Hardee's and Carl's Jr.) and Big Mac also doubled up the next six of their competitors combined domestic sales as well.
  • A Technomic report on the sequester points out both excessive deficit spending and a prolonged sequester of government funds could have dire defects as even wealthy consumers might cut their foodservice spending.
  • A McDonald's franchisee in Harrisburg, Pa. who is accused of mistreating international students who were in the U.S. on work-travel visas, announced shortly after news of the alleged abuse hit the national media that he would be selling his operations.
  • Family dining restaurants have had their problems for about the last quarter of a century. The family dining segment has been hurt by the expanded menus and upgraded décor of fast food restaurants, the growth in fast-casual operations and losing share to casual restaurants. But now a new study by Technomic finds that family restaurants have several strengths, including friendly service, welcoming atmosphere, and amenities that appeal specifically to consumers with children.
  • Allergic reactions among foodservice patrons is being addressed by bills introduced in the Maryland legislature that require every restaurant to designate a person in charge who would interact with patrons with food allergies to tell them what is safe to eat.
  • Pizza delivery is a major part of C-store chain Casey's General Store's foodservice strategy. In their last fiscal quarter Casey's added 50 locations to their delivery program and plans to open 50 more this quarter. The company will have about 225 units in the delivery program.
  • Growth Chains: Johnny Rockets plans on opening a minimum of 20 stores in India in the next several years. Frisco, Texas, based Mooyah Burgers will be opening 20 additional units in San Francisco in a few years. Ezell's Famous Chicken has projected opening 6 franchised units this year. Dairy Queen opened 215 units last year outside of the US and Canada.
  • Comparable Store Sales Reports: COSI (down 3.9 percent), Krispy Kreme (up 7.5 percent), and NPC International (down 4.0 percent)

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

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