Monthly sales at restaurants exceeded grocery stores sales for the first time, according to Bruce Grindy, the National Restaurant Association’s chief economist, who studies industry sales trends.  For the first time on record in December, monthly sales at restaurants surpassed grocery stores sales, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

This trend was hinted at through preliminary data releases in recent months, but was officially confirmed by today’s annual benchmark of Census data. The gap between monthly grocery store sales and restaurant sales started gradually shrinking in 2010 – a trend that was partially because of the increase in consumers buying their groceries at big box stores, Grindy said.

There has been a dramatic shift toward restaurants in the last 10 months. In June 2014, grocery store sales exceeded restaurant sales by $1.6 billion. By April 2015, the gap had essentially reversed, with restaurant sales moving out in front by $1.5 billion.  In fact, the $3.1 billion sales shift registered during the last 10 months is nearly as much as occurred during the previous 4.5 years.

Grindy found that the reallocation of consumers’ food dollar toward restaurants coincides with the sharp decline in gas prices in recent months, which suggests that the savings at the pump may have helped accelerate this change in consumer behavior. To investigate the impact of lower gas prices, the NRA commissioned a national telephone survey of 1,008 adults between April 30 and May 3.

The survey found that 80 percent of car owners say the recent decline in gas prices positively impacted their household finances. This sentiment was generally consistent across all income levels, with individuals in lower-income households the most likely to say that lower gas prices had a ‘very significant’ positive impact on their finances.

Among car owners who say the recent decline in gas prices positively impacted their household finances, 49 percent say the lower gas prices have increased their willingness and ability to do things like purchase meals, snacks, or beverages from restaurants, fast food places, or coffee shops.

Individuals in lower-income households are even more likely to feel that way, with a majority of car owners in households with income below $50,000 saying the positive impact that lower gas prices are having on their finances has increased their willingness and ability to patronize restaurants, fast food places, or coffee shops.

Overall, 33 percent of adults surveyed say they are patronizing restaurants more often now than they were one year ago. Within this group, the most common reason given is that they feel more confident in their financial situation – mentioned by 63 percent of consumers who are using restaurants more frequently.

Fifty-six percent of consumers say they increased frequency because gas prices are lower, while 46 percent say it is because their household income went up. Three in 10 consumers say they are using restaurants more often because they got a new job or because their home or investments are worth more.

When asked about their current restaurant usage, a significant proportion of the American public say they would like to be patronizing restaurants more often. Thirty-eight percent of all adults say they are not eating on the premises of restaurants as frequently as they would like, while 37 percent say they are not purchasing takeout or delivery as often as they would like.