This week the November U.S. Department of Commerce sales numbers bring good news for restaurants. And we take a look at the KnappTrack report on casual dining restaurants, U.S. chains operating in Africa and much more.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that retail sales rose at a higher than forecasted rate of 0.7 percent in November. Sales were boosted by auto and light trucks, which were up a strong 1.8 percent. Not counting autos, November retail sales increased 0.4 percent over the previous month.

Compared to November 2012, retail sales increased 4.7 percent. October retail sales were revised up to a 0.6 percent increase from 0.4 percent. But, some observers noted that retail segments posting strong results one month may be weak the next. This probably indicates that consumers remain very selective in their purchases as opposed to giving in to widespread spending.

Once again restaurant and bars enjoyed better sales results than the market as a whole. On an adjusted basis, bars and restaurants saw a 1.3 percent increase in November vs. October and were up 5.1 percent compared to November 2012. The U.S. Census Bureau calculates, on an unadjusted basis, that bar and restaurant sales grew 4 percent in the first 11 months of this year.

As we remind our readers every month, this good news comes with a number of caveats. The information above is advance data based on a small preliminary sample and remains subject to frequent revisions. Bars and restaurants are the only foodservice segments included in the sample. Sales of hotels, resorts, retailers, clubs and so-called institutions are not counted. The stats are adjusted (where indicated) for holidays, weekends and seasonal changes but not for menu price inflation.

Economic News This Week

  • Initial jobless claims took a major leap up for the week ending December 7. After falling the previous week to the lowest level seen since the start of the recession, claims jumped to 368,000, an increase of 68,000. The 4-week moving average rose to 328,750 claims, an increase of 6,000. Observers warned once again that claims can be erratic around holiday periods.
  • Small businesses kept hiring in November but at half the rate they did in October, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses. Small businesses added a seasonally adjusted 0.5 percent last month, which is at a historically low level.
  • When will the Federal Reserve begin tapering? Economists and others feel it is just a matter of time but a Wall Street Journal survey of economists found absolutely no agreement as to exactly when the Fed's support activities will stop.
  • The November Producer Price Index fell for the third straight month. Producer, or wholesale, prices declined by 0.1 percent last month after dropping by 0.2 percent in October and 0.1 percent in September. Energy prices forced the overall index down with not just gasoline but fuel oil and diesel fuel prices declining as well. Wholesale food prices were flat. With the volatile energy and food prices excluded, core producer prices increased 0.1 percent. In the last 12 months the producer price index is up just 0.6 percent with core prices up 1.3 percent for the same period. In other words, inflation is virtually non-existent.
  • The New York Federal Reserve's Manufacturing Survey for December rose to a positive 1.0 from minus 2.2 in November showing lethargic manufacturing activity in the region. New orders were in negative territory while shipments increased.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provided both good and bad news. Third quarter productivity was revised up to 3.0 percent from the earlier estimate of 1.9 percent and the output of goods and services increased to 4.7 percent from 3.7 percent. On the negative side, the estimate of hours worked was unchanged at 1.7 percent and the inflation adjusted hourly compensation of U.S. workers dropped 1.4 percent in the manufacturing sector.
  • Some food commodity prices that were wreaking havoc on foodservice operators' bottom lines are now receding. A bumper crop of wheat has some commodity experts talking about a glut. Corn prices are so low that some farmers are storing their supplies rather than taking them to market now, hoping for a price rebound. And the bacon boom appears to be abating, resulting in lower prices.
  • Home foreclosures declined 30 percent In October compared to the same month one year earlier, according to CoreLogic. Also, the 48,000 foreclosures in October were 25 percent lower than the 64,000 reported for September. Moreover, CoreLogic said that "serious delinquencies" were down 25 percent on a year-over-year basis and at the lowest level in almost 5 years.
  • Consumers' Christmas spending intentions edged up to $740 neatly in between the average $704 they said in November but below the $786 that consumers estimated in October. The Gallup Organization said last year's average was $770. In the middle of the last decade average spending on Christmas gifts exceeded $900 twice.
  • Gallup's Congressional job approval rating was 14 percent for the year, marking the lowest rating for the U.S. Congress the study began in 1974. The November approval rating was 9 percent, the lowest monthly result ever. Going hand in hand with the approval research, the Gallup Organization asked Americans about the most important problem facing the country today. Number one on the list was "dissatisfaction with government." Second was the economy in general, followed by healthcare with unemployment fourth.
  • On the topic of healthcare, Gallup's poll of people currently without health insurance found 28 percent do not intend to buy coverage next year.
  • Gallup's Economic Confidence Index inched up last week. The Index was minus 22, way up from the minus 39 it recorded but way below the monthly single digit scores from May, June and July.

Foodservice News This Week

  • Knapp-Track reports same-store sales among the casual dining chains it tracks declined in November. Malcolm Knapp's report of sales results for 50 plus casual restaurant chains indicated a decline 1.5 percent. Same-store guest counts were down 3.1 percent while check averages increased 1.6 percent. Knapp-Track has reported same-store sales have been down in five of the last six months. The only exception was a slight 0.2 percent increase in October.
  • Africa represents great opportunities for U.S.-based restaurant chains but there are some challenges to consider, too. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out some good things about the African continent — Domino's operations in Nigeria are the company's busiest by volume worldwide — but there a numerous negatives as well. For example the supply chain can be a major headache when it comes to finding such products as beef. A Johnny Rocket's franchisee flies in such staples as onions, mushrooms and lettuce. And one franchisee's high voltage equipment destroyed the restaurant's generator and refrigerators forcing him to spend $15,000 to airfreight a refrigerator from the U.S. The Domino's operator in Nigeria was forced to dig a well and install a water treatment plant behind each store at a cost of $60,000 per location. Yet, CKE and other chains are moving ahead with their plans. YUM has more than 1,000 KFC locations in Africa, up from about 600 three years ago.
  • Sysco/US Foods Merger – follow up. When the merger was announced, Sysco's CEO stated that the combined company expected to achieve $600 million in savings over 3 to 4 years as a result of synergies. While some investment analysts are skeptical regarding this savings, Deutsche Bank has announced they find the $600 million figure to be conservative.
  • C-Stores have made "a concerted effort to improve the quality of food and service" so says data from a new Technomic study on this operator segment. The report also says that C-stores are taking volume from restaurants, particularly fast feeders. The study reported that 7-Eleven had the deepest penetration in the market with 39 percent of C-store users buying a foodservice item from the chain in the last two months. Wawa had the highest rating for food quality, variety and "craveability". Quik Trip, Stripes, and Kwik Trip did well in these area, too.
  • Ruby Tuesday denied reports it is "evaluating strategic alternatives." A press release cited the company's policy not to comment on market rumors. The company also said it did not originate the report that the casual dining chain had hired Goldman Sachs. The release went on to say that the company is committed to their previously announced plans and strategy.
  • Red Robin now has six of its Red Robin's Burger Works concepts open. The company says the concept is a "smaller, non-traditional restaurant prototype."
  • Growth chains: The Red Mango yogurt chain is expanding to Puerto Rico with five units set to open in the next six months. Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint has a franchise development agreement to open three restaurants in northern Georgia. Krispy Kreme plans to open 10 stores in Taiwan in the next 5 years while Krispy Kreme's franchisee in India plans to add 35 stores. Pie Five Pizza Co. has awarded 38 franchise agreements to a franchisee to the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Southern Maryland. Huddle House plans on opening 175 restaurants in the next 5 years. McAlister's Deli has a development agreement for 7 restaurants in New Jersey.
  • Comparable Store Sales Reports: Logan's Roadhouse (down 5.2 percent)

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