My car is terrible in the snow. Luckily, that has not been an issue this winter. While my neck of the Northeast last winter racked up more than 60 inches of snowfall by official estimates — it seemed like far more as I navigated huge snow banks and held my breath each time SUVs passed on snow-narrowed roads — so far this year we’ve had only 7.8 inches.
That’s not such good news for the nearby ski resorts. Who wants to hit the slopes when the lawn is visible and early spring temperatures have forced Jack Frost into hiding? But for retailers, museums and, most important, restaurants, our snowless winter has led to an increase in business.
The results of that bit of good fortune play out in the most recent Nation’s Restaurant News-MillerPulse operator surveys. Industry same-store sales rose in both December and January, up 5.4 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively.
While January’s figures dipped slightly — but were still notably improved from the 1.7-percent increase recorded the same month a year earlier — the upward trend bodes well for restaurant operators going forward, said Larry Miller, the survey’s creator and a restaurant analyst with RBC Capital Markets in Atlanta.
“This could be the first sign of the rising tide that we’ve been waiting to see,” Miller said.
For more on the survey’s results, turn to the Finance section.
Also on an upward trajectory is the country’s employment scenario. In January the national unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, and 243,000 jobs were added, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Beginning on page 1 and continuing in the Business Intel section, we examine how the restaurant industry figures into that brightening picture, as well as the welcome challenges that an improving job market will present as 2012 unfolds and how some operators are preparing to meet those challenges.
We also look into the custom-pizza craze that is drawing the attention of industry insiders and customers. Offering speed, variety and the chance to build your own personal-sized pizza, concepts such as Pie Five Pizza Co., Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint and Top That! Pizza are establishing a niche that could steal market share from both pizza and fast-casual players. Read about the how and why starting on page 1 and jumping to the Food & Beverage section.
This issue’s special report also has a culinary bent, as we tour the country exploring the distinct flavors that appeal to residents of different regions. From pork stew in New Mexico to the cinnamon-laced chili of Cincinnati, we look at what tastes resonate where, how those tastes emerged and why knowledgeable operators are increasingly incorporating them into their menus.
As the report points out, however, some trends cross borders, and one of those is the accelerating interest in wellness. In the Growth Chains feature we check in on Freshii, a 47-unit chain with ambitious plans to drive awareness of its so-called “health-casual” offerings around the globe.
And in our second installment of World Views, columnist David Coffer addresses some U.S. trends being adopted overseas, including the explosion of pop-up restaurants and the food truck movement now motoring across Europe.
Mobile payment-and-loyalty programs take center stage in the Marketing section as operators explore ways to capitalize on the widespread use of smartphones. A growing number of mobile services are helping restaurateurs eliminate punch cards, key fobs and other bulky items once affiliated with loyalty programs.
That’s a plus both for the operators who no longer need to pay for them and the busy consumers who no longer need to carry them as they travel the clear, snowless streets to economic prosperity.