January was by all accounts a pretty fabulous month for the restaurant industry. The latest indicator comes from the federal government.
Last week, the federal government’s retail sales report showed that sales at food and drinking places rose 13.1 percent in January on the year, and 0.8 percent from December.
That was the biggest annual jump for any industry in the report, and the industry was a big bright spot in a month when retail sales fell 0.8 percent.
Yet it’s only the latest in a series of indicators showing that the industry is coming off its best month in a decade. The January MillerPulse survey, for instance, reported the best month for same-store sales in 10 years. The Black Box Intelligence index reported same-store sales growth of 6.1 percent in the month.
A number of restaurant companies have hinted that their January was looking pretty good. Buffalo Wild Wings said its January same-store sales rose 11.9 percent. Yesterday, Potbelly executives hinted that their January sales were positive. So, too, did executives at BJ’s Restaurants this afternoon when they reported earnings.
The industry is benefitting from a culmination of all sorts of tailwinds that are driving sales right now.
Gas prices are way down, more than $1 lower than where they were a year ago, according to AAA. That has helped improve discretionary income and it’s clearly going to restaurants (and not many other places, if you look at January retail sales).
Unemployment is down. And while there remain some concerns about stagnant wages, if people are working they’re not at home to make a hamburger and clean the dishes. And if they’re working they do things like forget their lunch at home or skip breakfast.
And of course, comparisons are a heck of a lot easier. A year ago, for instance, January same-store sales rose just 0.4 percent according to MillerPulse. While some folks in Boston might disagree, the weather so far this year has been a lot better than it was a year ago. At least it’s less devastating.