WASHINGTON – Restaurant sales in the United States registered a solid gain in March and returned to the levels reached before the recent soft patch, said Bruce Grindy, the National Restaurant Association's chief economist. Restaurant operators are generally optimistic about sales growth in the months ahead, but their outlook for the economy remains mixed.

In March, US eating and drinking place sales totaled $47.3 billion on a seasonally-adjusted basis, up 1.1 percent from February’s upward-revised sales volume of $46.8 billion, based on US Census Bureau preliminary figures. The March sales volume matched the previous record high registered in November 2013, and following three months where sales were dampened by weather conditions, Grindy said.

On a seasonally-adjusted basis, total retail sales also increased 1.1 percent in March; grocery-store sales rose a mere 0.2 percent.

US restaurant operators are relatively optimistic about the business environment in the coming months. Forty percent of restaurant operators in the NRA’s March 2014 Restaurant Industry Tracking Survey said they expect to have higher sales in six months versus the same period in the previous year, which is essentially unchanged from the responses in the previous four months. Eleven percent of restaurant operators expect their sales volume in six months to be less than it was during the same period in the previous year; 49 percent expect their sales to remain approximately the same.

However, restaurant operators are less bullish about the direction of the economy. Twenty-nine percent of restaurant operators expect economic conditions to improve in six months, while 16 percent expect the economy to worsen. Meanwhile, the remaining 55 percent expect economic conditions to remain generally unchanged in the next six months, Grindy concluded.