Although sales and traffic at restaurants softened slightly in April, the restaurant industry as a whole stayed out of the red, so to speak, as measured by the National Restaurant Association’s monthly index.

The Washington, D.C.-based association’s monthly measure of the current situation and outlook for the industry was 100.4 in April, down from 100.5 in March, when it broke out of a 31-month stint below 100. The index supports the restaurant industry’s hope that it is finally pulling out of the recession.

Restaurant outlook stays positive through spring

Courtesy National Restaurant Association

The National Restaurant Association's montly Restaurant Performance creeped up above 100 for the first time since September 2007 this March, and stayed above 100 in April, its latest data available.

Scores below 100 reflect contraction in the industry, and scores above 100 reflect growth.

“Although the sales and traffic indicators softened somewhat from their March performance, restaurant operators remain optimistic that business conditions will improve in the months ahead,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group for the association, in a news release.

The Restaurant Performance Index, which covers the current situation and expectations for the future, was bolstered to its above-100 level by what restaurant owners think is ahead. The current situation index has been below 100 for 32 months, and was at 99.0 in April. Almost 40% of operators reported a same-store sales gain in April, compared with last year, while 43% had reported a sales gain in March. That was the first time there was a net positive same-store sales report in 22 months, according to the release.

Restaurant operators reporting lower same-store sales, compared with 2009, went up from 36% to 43% from March to April.

Restaurants are making more capital expenditures than they have in six months, with 40% having purchased equipment, expanded or remodeled in the last three months.

The expectations index on its own has been positive for four months, and stayed positive in April, although just a tenth of a point lower than what it had been, at 101.8. Almost half, 47%, of operators expect to have higher sales in six months compared with the same period in 2009, while only 12% expect lower sales volume. That 12% is the lowest the future sales expectations have been in three years.

“In addition, restaurant operators reported a positive outlook for staffing gains, as well as continued plans for capital expenditures in the coming months,” Riehle said in the release.

The index is based on input from restaurant operators across the U.S. and across restaurant categories.