Payroll tax increases and high gasoline prices have pushed consumers to dine out less. But tax refunds, which are rolling in, may bring relief to the limping restaurant industry.
"Payroll tax takes its negative toll. Starting February consumers have less money — low- and middle-income groups," said Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst at Technomic, a market researcher.
The payroll tax was raised in January two percentage points to its previous level from 2010. (Read more: Payroll Tax Hike Will Affect Your Paycheck and Economy)
According to research from the National Retail Federation that was released in February, nearly three-quarters of Americans said they're adjusting spending because of the payroll tax change. Plus, 16 percent of those surveyed said they're eating out less, and 15 percent are using coupons more often, according to the retail group.
Rising fuel prices have hit restaurants even harder. More than 37 percent of those surveyed said they're eating out less because of the gas prices, according to a separate survey from the retail group.
Value is King
Given tighter wallets, it's no surprise consumers are looking for more value, said Tristano of Technomic. Pizza and burger chains will likely grow further during the next few months as they offer more value. Tristano sees a slow growth of 1 percent (adjusted for inflation) for the restaurant industry in 2013.
"Hopefully those tax returns coming in will give us a boost in terms of sales," said Tristano, "Enough to offset, perhaps, the impact of the payroll tax."
With fuel prices forecast to climb further, dining out will be trickier for consumers. But restaurants catering to more wealthy customers won't be hit as hard by payroll tax fluctuations, the analyst said.