The restaurant industry may be on its way to a comeback, according to the National Restaurant Association’s most recent survey of the industry.

July’s Restaurant Performance Index scored the industry overall at 98.1, slightly higher than June’s rating and almost two points higher than the industry’s record low at the end of 2008.

The association surveys restaurant operators each month, evaluating current conditions and expectations to gauge the industry’s health. With 100 as a break-even point, numbers less than that reflect contraction in the industry, and numbers greater than that reflect growth.

Although numbers are creeping up, the index is below 100 for the 21st consecutive month, starting its downward slope two years ago. The Expectations Index is the stronger of the two components, and mostly responsible for the shift upward.

"The RPI was at a record low in December 2008, when it stood at 96.4, and improveda  bit in the first quarter of 2009," said Annika Stensson, director of media relations for the association. "Since then, it's been a little shaky and remains in contraction mode."

Restaurant industry eyes potential rebound

The National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Performance Index

The Expectations Index, a measure of restaurant operators’ outlook for sales growth, the overall economy, staffing and capital expenditures, was up half a point from June, to 99.4. The number of operators who expect higher sales the next six months than they had the same time the previous year was up 6%, to 31%. Another 33% expect their sales to be lower.

When asked about the overall economy, 32% said they expect economic conditions to improve in the next six months, up from only 24% who said the same thing in the last index. In July, 24% said they expect economic conditions to worsen.

The Current Situation Index, a measure of same-store sales, consumer traffic, labor and capital spending, was up 0.2% from June, posting an increase for the first time in three months. This measure, however, has been below 100 for 23 months.

June reflected an all-time record low for same-store sales when compared with the same time in 2008. Only 22% of operators reported positive sales in June. In July, that number rose to 26%, with 58% reporting lower same-store sales. In December of 2008, the number of operators reporting same-store sales decline was up to 66%.
 
Consumer traffic remains down for 23 straight months in July, and only 23% of operators reported an increase in traffic compared with July 2008. That number was 19% in June. Meanwhile, 59% reported a decline in traffic.

Capital expenditures in both the Current Situation Index and Expectations Index remained on par with June.

"While there are signs of improvement for the restaurant industry, they may have not solidified into a steady rise in the RPI yet, Stensson said.