As a result of softer customer traffic and a dampened outlook among restaurant operators, the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Performance Index (RPI) fell to its lowest level in nine months.

The RPI – a monthly composite index that tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry – stood at 100.2 in July, down 1.1 percent from June and the lowest mark since a reading of 100.0 in October. However, July still represented the ninth consecutive month that the RPI stood above 100, which signifies continued expansion in the index of key industry indicators.

"Although restaurant operators reported positive same-store sales for the 14th consecutive month in July, their economic outlook for the months ahead continued to soften," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group for the NRA. "Only 22 percent of restaurant operators expect economic conditions to improve in the next six months, the lowest level in 10 months."

Despite this uncertainty, however, about one-half of operators still plan to spend capital on equipment, expansion or remodeling in the next six months. This, Riehle added, is a positive indicator for the industry's supply chain, as well as for the overall economy.

Current Situation Index

The Current Situation Index, which measures current trends in four industry indicators (same-store sales, traffic, labor and capital expenditures), stood at 99.8 in July – down 1.7 percent from June's level of 101.5. Although same-store sales remained positive in July, the softness in the labor and customer traffic indicators outweighed the performance, which led to a Current Situation Index reading below 100 for the first time in nine months.

Fifty-three percent of restaurant operators reported a same-store sales gain between July 2011 and July 2012, down from 61 percent who reported positive sales in June. In comparison, 36 percent reported lower same-store sales in July, up sharply from 24 percent in June.

While sales remained positive overall, operators reported a net decline in customer traffic levels in July. Thirty-five percent reported higher customer traffic levels between July 2011 and July 2012, down from 50 percent who reported positive traffic in June. Meanwhile, 46 percent of operators reported lower customer traffic levels in July, up from 29 percent in June.

Forty-six percent of operators said they made a capital expenditure for equipment, expansion or remodeling during the last three months, down slightly from 48 percent who reported similarly last month.

Expectations Index

The Expectations Index, measuring the six-month outlook for four industry indicators (same-store sales, employees, capital expenditures and business conditions), stood at 100.7 in July – down 0.6 percent from June and the fourth consecutive monthly decline. Although July marked the 11th consecutive month that the Expectations Index stood above 100, it also represented the weakest level in nine months.

Overall, operators remain cautiously optimistic that their sales levels will improve in the months ahead, though their outlook softened from recent months. Forty-two percent of restaurant operators expect to have higher sales in six months (compared to the same period in the previous year), down from 50 percent who reported similarly last month. Meanwhile, 15 percent expect their sales volume in six months to be lower than it was during the same period in the previous year, up from 13 percent last month.

In contrast to their generally positive outlook for sales, operators are noticeably less optimistic about the direction of the overall economy. Only 22 percent said they expect economic conditions to improve in six months, down from 28 percent last month and the lowest level in 10 months. Meanwhile, 22 percent said they expect economic conditions to worsen in the next six months, while 56 percent think conditions will stay about the same.

Despite the uneasiness about the economy, operators' capital spending outlook remains relatively firm. Forty-nine percent plan to make a capital expenditure for equipment, expansion or remodeling in the next six months, down slightly from 51 percent who reported similarly last month.

Read more about trends and statistics.

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