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Restaurant comps strong in February, operator confidence wanes

Latest MillerPulse restaurant survey finds operators are divided on sales outlook

Restaurant industry same-store sales remained strong in February, particularly in the quick-service segment, but operators are divided on whether positive sales trends are sustainable in the long-term, according to the latest NRN-MillerPulse survey.

Industry same-store sales rose 4.7 percent in February, following a 4.9-percent increase in January, the survey found. The quick-service segment, which includes both fast-food and fast-casual brands, posted an all-time high for the survey, with a 6.5-percent same-store sales increase in February.

MillerPulse, an operator survey exclusive to Nation’s Restaurant News, included respondents from 60 restaurant operators in March regarding February sales, profit trends, performance and outlooks. Respondents included operators from all regions of the country and represent the quick-service, casual-dining, fine-dining and fast-casual segments. Those surveyed in March represented restaurants that booked about 15 percent of industry sales.

Full-service restaurants, which include both casual-dining and fine-dining brands, posted a 2.7-percent increase in same-store sales in February, down from the 3.7-percent increase in January. Fine-dining restaurants performed much better than casual-dining restaurants, reporting a 5.6-percent increase in same-store sales for the month compared to a 2.3-percent increase by casual-dining brands, the survey found.

Favorable weather continued to play a major role in the positive sales figures, with 41-percent of the operators surveying citing it as the primary driving factor of improved same-store sales. Other major factors cited were the improving economy and stronger consumer confidence.

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Operators are split on whether they think the positive sales trends from the last several month are sustainable going forward, with 54 percent saying that they aren’t versus the 46 percent that believe the strong sales number are sustainable.

“It’s a glass half full, glass half empty situation,” said Larry Miller, restaurant securities analyst at RBC Capital Markets, and creator of the monthly MillerPulse surveys. “Those that don’t think these figures are sustainable are probably those that attributed them to weather, and believe that things are eventually going to come crashing back down.”

This is reflected in the fact that only a net 2 percent of operators think March same-store sales will be better than February. This figure was determined by the 28 percent of operators surveyed who thought March sales would be better versus the 26 percent than thought they would be worse. In addition, operators’ outlook on same-store sales for the next six months fell in every segment compared to last month, but remained positive across the board.

Overall, Miller is optimistic about where sales figures are currently and where they are going.

“The last six months were strong, and the fact that nearly an equal amount of operators are optimistic about sales trends as those that aren’t is pretty good,” he said. “I’m more of a glass half full person.”

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Contact Charlie Duerr at [email protected].

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