This week we crunch the latest employment numbers, check in on casual dining via the Knapp-Track report, look at the only foodservice segment that grew last year according to NPD, and a whole lot more.

Payroll processing firm ADP got the employment data rolling when the company reported an increase of 175,000 private sector jobs in January. Small businesses, a segment of companies that employ less than 49 people and likely include a lot of restaurants, accounted for 75,000 of the new jobs; medium businesses, those with 50-499 employees, added 66,000 jobs; and large businesses, those with more than 500 employee, hired the balance.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports first-time jobless claims fell to 331,000, a decline of 20,000, for the week ending Feb. 1, 2014. The decline neatly offset the big leap of 19,000 the previous week. This illustrates why many observers rely on the 4-week claims average, which fell to 334,000, a decline of 250.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also said the economy created just 113,000 new jobs in January 2014. The numbers were a little brighter than first appears because the private sector added 142,000 new jobs. In contrast, various government entities laid off a hefty 29,000 people. Unemployment, measured in an entirely different study, fell slightly to 6.6 percent from December’s 6.7 percent. One bright spot was foodservice hiring. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that the foodservice industry added 14,800 jobs last month, which represents more than 10 percent of the new private sector jobs created.

Economic News This Week

  • The Institute for Supply Management’s Non-Manufacturing Activity Index rose to 56.3 percent in January from 54.6 percent in December, marking the 54th consecutive month of increasing activity. The New Orders Index rose 0.5 percent to 50.9 percent while the Employment Index rose 0.8 percent to a very respectable 56.4 percent. The latter number is important because the service segments generate four out of five U.S. jobs. ISM said that 11 service segments grew and 7 contracted last month. As reported in this space last week, the Institute’s Manufacturing Index tumbled sharply in January, slipping 5.2 points and barely staying in expansion mode at 51.3.
  • Factory orders fell 1.5 percent in December due in large part to a decline in aircraft spending. Orders for manufactured goods increased 2.5 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
  • Productivity increased 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Unit labor costs fell 1.6 percent for the period.
  • The effect of the Affordable Care Act on the labor market has been discussed for months with speculation that employers would cut employees’ hours or opt not to expand their businesses to keep below the thresholds for providing coverage. Now a new study from non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicts that workers will cut back on the number of hours they work or leave the labor force altogether in order avoid losing their healthcare subsidies due to means testing.
  • Americans’ daily spending fell to $78 in January after hitting a 5-year high of $96 in December, according to data from the Gallup Organization. Gallup adds the spending drop is “fairly typical of the post- holiday dip” the organization’s seen since 2010 and the $78 figure is real close to the $80 figure recorded in January 2013.
  • Gallup’s U.S. Economic Confidence Index rose in January to minus 16 vs. minus 19 in December. The low point for last year was minus 35 in October. The record low was minus 52 in fall of 2011. The survey is determined by the net difference between those consumers who believe the economy is good vs. those who rate it poor. Since the study’s inception in 2008 it has never been in positive territory.

Foodservice News This Week

  • Knapp-Track reported January comparable store sales decreased 2.6 percent with customer counts down 4.4 percent for the 50-plus casual dining chains it studies. This would seem to indicate that check averages increased 1.8 percent. Mr. Knapp’s survey does not indicate how much of the check increase was by trading up vs. menu price increases. Given that sales were negative each week in January, Mr. Knapp wonders how much the bad weather that plagued much of the country had on the restaurant business. Perhaps the only bright spot in the report was that January was better than December, during which comp store sales were down 3.8 percent and customer traffic down 5.2 percent.
  • The NPD Group reported that fast-casual restaurants increased customer counts last year, the only restaurant market segment to do so. While the fast-casual segment had an 8 percent increase in visits and a 10 percent increase in spending, the overall restaurant market experienced flat traffic and had dollar growth of just 2 percent. A major factor in fast casual growth was a 6 percent increase in the number of units. A spokeswoman for NPD stated that consumers are trading down and fast casual operations are capturing market share by meeting consumers’ expectations.
  • Pizza restaurants are affecting the entire industry according to a recent item on the Motley Fool’s web site. The economy and fast-casual restaurants are contributing to the slowdown in fast food sales and the writer attributes pizza operators as another cause. Pizza chains have been very successful in using technology — smart phones, iPads, etc. — to make ordering easy. In addition, recent research shows consumers consider pizza the second best value for the dollar behind burger restaurants, ahead of Mexican and chicken. Also, pizza chains have been successful in extending their menus. Pizza restaurants account for 10 percent of all the new restaurant openings.
  • McDonald’s U.S. comparable store sales fell 3.3 percent in January. McDonalds said that the decline in same-store sales were the result of “broad based challenges” including weather. However, even with this large drop in one of the chain’s important U.S. market, comps sales increased 1.2 percent with a 2 percent jump in Europe and a 5.4 percent rise in Asia/Pacific, Middle East and Africa. Total sales were up 0.6 percent for the month or up 3.9 percent with adjustments for currency fluctuations.
  • Illinois Tool Works announced its food equipment group’s sales grew 4.2 percent in the quarter ending December 31, 2013, due to increases in equipment and service sales in North America.
  • Corporate Stirrings: Frist Watch has purchased rival chain The Good Egg and all 20 of its restaurants. Buffet Partners LP, parent company of Furr’s Fresh Buffet, has filed for voluntary reorganization under Chapter 11.
  • The Columbus Food League, operator of 8 diverse concept restaurants in the Columbus, Ohio, area, will open two more locations early this year and will possibly expand to the Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh markets.
  • Growth Chains: McAlister’s Deli, which opened 12 restaurants in 2013, has signed 11 development agreements for a total of 63 new locations. McDonald’s has opened a 350-seat unit in Vietnam and the country’s franchisee has established a goal of having 100 locations. Sonic Drive Ins has signed a franchise development agreement for six restaurants in Syracuse and Watertown, N.Y. Marco’s Pizza plans on adding 10 units to the 5 the chain now has in the Central Ohio area. Teriyaki Madness has an agreement for adding 24 locations in California as well for adding units in Colorado, Arkansas and Texas.
  • Comparable Store Sales Reports: Baskin-Robbins (up 2.2 percent), Buffalo Wild Wings (company-owned up 5.2 percent and franchised up 3.1 percent), Dunkin’ Donuts (up 3.5 percent) and McDonald’s (down 3.3 percent.)

For details and same store sales of other chains, please click here for the Green Sheet.

For the most recent financial data on foodservice industry suppliers, please click here for the complete report.