The restaurant industry reported sales up more than 4% in September over the same month last year, enough of a boost to pull the entire industry out of the red, as reported by the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Performance Index.

The index, a compilation of current situation reports and expectations from restaurant operators across the country, reached 100.3 in September, its first score above 100 since April and only the second time the index crossed over the 100-mark in more than three years.

Restaurant industry reports growth

Courtesy National Restaurant Association

The National Restaurant Association's monthly Restaurant Performance Index rose to 100.3 in September, reflecting growth in the industry for only the third month total in more than three years.

In March, the Restaurant Performance index reached 100.5, reflecting growth in the industry for the first time in 31 months. It stayed above 100 only through April, and then fell below for the remainder of the spring and the summer.

“Industry sales in September were actually at a record high, up almost 4.5% over year earlier levels,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group for the association, in a video synopsis of September’s results. “Employment gains in September were also good, with 34,000 net positions added to the industry. So over the first nine months of the year, the restaurant industry has actually gained over 100,000 jobs.”

Riehle said the solid gain was basic driven by operators’ current situation and their reports of both improvements in sales and traffic, as well as their expectations for the future.

“So for example, when one looks at capital expenditure intentions by restaurant operators, almost half, 47%, report that they anticipate making a capital expenditure in the next six months,” Riehle said.

Despite the gain in industry sales, operators reported an overall Current Situation Index of 99.4, below the 100 mark and representing contraction in the industry. The Current Situation Index has not reached above 100 in 37 months, but September’s level was the highest since October 2007, according to an association news release.

The number of operators reporting same-store sales gain over the last year through September rose to 44%, up from 38% in August and a 6-month high. The numbers were almost exactly reversed for same-store sales decline, with only 38% of operators reporting a decline compared to 43% in August.

Traffic was up for 38% of operators, according to the report.

Riehle said restaurants should look forward to the holiday season and the extra traffic it can bring.

“As the holiday season approaches, Americans will once again depend on restaurants for their festivities,” Riehle said. “Regard Thanksgiving, 1 in ten 10, 11%, will visit a restaurant, and over half, 53%, will actually utilize a restaurant prepared item in their celebratory meal.”

Forty-three percent of restaurant operators expect to have higher sales in six months, according to the index, up from 38% who reported a similar outlook in August.