U.S. casual dining fell 5.4% in February

Sales at casual-dining establishments fell 5.4 percent in Sales at casual-dining establishments fell 5.4 percent in February, after declining 0.6 percent in January and 1.6 percent in December, according to the Knapp-Track Index of monthly restaurant sales. (March 12, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty

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Restaurants are reeling from their worst three months since 2010, as American diners spooked by higher payroll taxes cut back on eating out.

Sales at casual-dining establishments fell 5.4 percent last month, after declining 0.6 percent in January and 1.6 percent in December, according to the Knapp-Track Index of monthly restaurant sales. This was the first three months of consecutive declines in almost three years, with consumers caught in a "very emotional moment," said Malcolm Knapp, a Manhattan-based consultant who created the index and has monitored the industry since 1970.

"February was pretty ugly" for many chains -- and probably will be the worst month of the year -- after January delivered an "initial blow" while Americans grappled with increased payroll taxes and health care premiums, rising gasoline prices and budget debates in Washington, Knapp said.

"It's important to keep in mind that companies also are facing unusually tough comparable sales because of favorable weather in 2012," so the result is an industry that's been "a lot softer so far this year."

Even as consumers open their wallets for bigger-ticket purchases including cars and furniture, weakness has surfaced at full-service chains such as Darden Restaurants' Olive Garden and Red Lobster, as well as limited-service chains including McDonald's.

U.S. paychecks have shrunk this year after Congress and President Barack Obama let the tax that funds Social Security benefits revert to 6.2 percent from 4.2 percent.

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