Due in large part to restaurant operators' dampened outlook for sales growth and the economy, the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Performance Index (RPI) fell sharply in October. The RPI – a monthly composite index that tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry – stood at 99.5 in October, down 0.9 percent from September. October represented the first time in 14 months that the RPI fell below 100.

"Although restaurant operators overall continued to report positive same-store sales in October, their short-term outlook for sales growth and the economy is decidedly more pessimistic," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group for the NRA. "Nearly two out of five restaurant operators expect business conditions to worsen in the next six months, which is double the proportion that expect conditions to improve."

The Index consists of two components – the Current Situation Index and the Expectations Index. The Current Situation Index, which measures same-store sales, traffic, labor and capital expenditures, was 99.3 in October – down 0.6 percent from a level of 99.9 in September. While same-store sales remained positive in October, declines in the labor and customer traffic indicators outweighed the performance, which resulted in a Current Situation Index reading below 100 for the third time in the last four months.

Although operators reported positive same-store sales for the 17th consecutive month in October, results continued to soften from recent months. Forty percent reported a same-store sales gain between October 2011 and October 2012, down from 48 percent in September and the lowest proportion in 17 months. Meanwhile, 36 percent of operators reported lower same-store sales in October, essentially unchanged from 35 percent in September.

While sales remained positive overall, operators reported a net decline in customer traffic levels in October. Thirty percent reported higher customer traffic levels between October 2011 and October 2012, down from 36 percent who reported positive traffic in September. In comparison, 41 percent of operators reported lower customer traffic levels in October, unchanged from September.

Along with the softer sales and traffic results, restaurant operators reported a slight drop in capital spending activity. Forty-six percent of operators said they made a capital expenditure for equipment, expansion or remodeling during the last three months, down from 49 percent who reported similarly last month.

The Expectations Index, which measures restaurant operators' six-month outlook for same-store sales, employees, capital expenditures and business conditions, stood at 99.7 in October – down 1.2 percent from September. October represented the first time in 14 months that the Expectations Index fell below 100.

Restaurant operators' outlook for sales growth deteriorated significantly in recent months. Thirty-one percent of restaurant operators expect to have higher sales in six months (compared to the same period in the previous year), down from 45 percent last month and the lowest level in three years. Meanwhile, 21 percent expect their sales volume in six months to be lower than it was during the same period in the previous year, up from 11 percent last month.

Similarly, operators are increasingly pessimistic about the direction of the overall economy. Only 20 percent said they expect economic conditions to improve in six months, down from 26 percent last month. In contrast, 38 percent of operators said they expect economic conditions to worsen in the next six months, up from 18 percent last month and the highest level in nearly four years.

Despite the uncertainty, more restaurant operators are planning for capital spending in the months ahead. Fifty percent of restaurant operators plan to make a capital expenditure for equipment, expansion or remodeling in the next six months, up from 44 percent who reported similarly last month.

NRA adds two to policy department

The NRA has also added two former Capitol Hill staffers to its expanding Policy and Government Affairs department.

Laura Abshire, who previously served as deputy chief of staff and legislative director to Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), has been named director of Sustainability Policy and Government Affairs. In this new position, she will lead the association's work on energy and environmental policy, as well as some agricultural issues and related advocacy efforts. In addition, she will play an important role in supporting the NRA's Conserve initiative.

Ryan Kearney has joined the NRA in its new position of Labor and Workforce Policy manager. Most recently a senior legislative assistant for the House of Representative's Committee on Education and the Workforce majority staff, he will help oversee legislative and regulatory matters, particularly on labor, immigration, wages, OSHA and other workforce issues. Prior to his Hill service, Kearney worked in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Labor, Immigration and Employee Benefits Division.

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