No surprises

by MEAT&POULTRY Staff
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Despite recent suggestions by some analysts that certain full-service restaurants are faring well in the current economy while the quick-service sector struggles, the National Restaurant Association says that its data shows the opposite.

"For our 2009 forecast" – issued last January – "we forecast stronger growth for QSRs and slower growth for full-service restaurants," Mike Donohue, vice president of media relations for the organization, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "And that’s what the data from the year continues to show."

The soft restaurant market has impacted the meat industry, particularly the beef sector, where weakness in high-end steakhouse sales has caused an oversupply of beef’s premium product, the USDA Prime steak, resulting in depressed prices. On the other end of the market, heavy discount promotions in the QSR sector to attract customers and build volume have helped push ground beef prices lower.

In its 2009 forecast, NRA predicted that inflation-adjusted growth at FSRs would be off 2.5 percent compared to ’08 but that QSR sales would remain essentially flat at 0.4 percent. Overall, the entire restaurant category, including HRI foodservice, employee cafeterias and military foodservice, is predicted to be off one percent for the year compared to ’08.

NRA’s most recent Restaurant Performance Index, covering the month of September, stands at 97.5, down 0.4 percent from August and comprising the 23rd consecutive month the Index has not reached 100. The Index measures the "health and outlook" of the restaurant industry, according to NRA. "The Current Situation Index, which measures current trends in four industry indicators (same-store sales, traffic, labor and capital expenditures), stood at 96.0 in September – unchanged from August and tied for the second-lowest level on record. In addition, September represented the 25th consecutive month below 100, which signifies contraction in the current situation indicators," reported the group.

A Dow Jones report issued at the beginning of November suggested that moderate-priced full-service chains such as Panera Bread Co. and the Cheesecake Factory are getting a boost in the current economy because their relatively affluent customer base is benefiting from the rising stock market, while the QSR sector continues to suffer the effects of widespread unemployment among parts of its customer base, including teenagers.

Donohue told MEATPOULTRY.com that while he couldn’t comment on analyses that hadn’t come from NRA, his organization’s numbers don’t support the Dow Jones statements. The outlook overall for restaurants is, if not grim, then at least challenging. Since 1971, the industry’s inflation-adjusted growth has dipped below 0 percent just five times – and two of those times are in 2008 and 2009.

"Despite the softer sales outlook, restaurant operators remained cautiously optimistic about the direction of the economy," states NRA in its analysis of the September RPI. "Twenty-eight percent of restaurant operators said they expect economic conditions to improve in six months, while 20 percent expect economic conditions to worsen during the next six months. Last month, 34 percent of operators said they expected the economy to improve in six months, while 19 percent expected conditions to deteriorate." Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they expect to make capital-improvement expenditures.

NRA’s 2010 Restaurant Industry Forecast will be released in mid-January, according to Donohue.

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