Restaurant operators reported good news for the 10th consecutive month, closing the first quarter of 2012 at a post-recession high, and that’s good news for foodservice produce suppliers.

The National Restaurant Association also reported the highest capital spending outlook in four years in its first-quarter report. The association’s Restaurant Performance Index (RPI), a monthly composite index that tracks the U.S. restaurant industry, was at 102.2 for March, up 0.3% from February.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for Washington D.C.-based NRA, said in a news release the strong numbers show higher same-store sales and customer traffic. Restaurant operators also logged their highest “expectations component” in 15 months, which Riehle said “will have positive implications throughout the supply chain.”

Some details from the recent RPI report included:

  •    65% of restaurants reported same-store gains for March 2012 compared to March 2011;
  •    55% reported higher traffic levels year-to-year for March; and
  •    48% reported making capital expenditures in the first quarter of 2012, which ties for the highest level reported since before the recession.

The complete report is available online at

Restaurant operators are optimistic about the coming six months, with the expectations index for March at 102.4, up 0.4% from February and the highest score in 15 months. March was the seventh consecutive month for the expectations index to top 100, which NRA officials said shows expansion in the industry.

The industry is responding with plans to add staff, and 56% of restaurant operators said in March they plan to buy equipment and expand or remodel in the coming six months. That’s a 7% increase compared to February and the strongest capital outlay expectation in more than four years.