WASHINGTON – In March, the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Performance Index (RPI) was 101.0, up 0.3 percent from February. Driven by strong gains in same-store sales and customer traffic levels, the current situation is the strongest in almost four years, according to NRA.

“The overall Current Situation component of the RPI stood above 100 for the first time in 43 months, which signifies expansion in the indicators of current industry performance,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group for the NRA.

Two components make up the Restaurant Performance Index – the Current Situation Index (measuring current trends) and the Expectations Index (measuring restaurant operators’ six-month outlook) - which tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry.

The Current Situation Index stood at 100.2 in March – up 0.8 percent from February and its third strong gain in the last four months. Fifty-two percent of restaurant operators reported a same-store sales gain between March 2010 and March 2011, up from 49 percent in February and the strongest level since August 2007. Forty-five percent of restaurant operators also reported an increase in customer traffic in the same timeframe, up from 41 percent in February.

In March, the Expectations Index stood at 101.7– down slightly from February’s 101.9. NRA relays that despite the decline, the Expectations Index stood above the 100 level for the eighth consecutive month, and restaurant operators’ plans for capital spending rose to the highest level in 41 months.

Restaurant operators reported a positive outlook for staffing gains in the months ahead for the sixth consecutive month. Twenty-six percent of restaurant operators plan to increase staffing levels in six months (compared with the same period in the previous year), while just 11 percent said they expect to reduce staffing levels in six months.