A summertime ray of optimism has apparently broken through the general gloom pervading the nation’s restaurant industry following months of sagging sales.

The National Restaurant Association, a Washington, DC.-based trade group, projects the industry will add 381,800 jobs during the 2009 summer season, which would mark a 4.1 percent increase over March employment levels.

Those new jobs would include New York (32,900), Massachusetts (23,600), Maine (10,200), Connecticut (7,300), New Hampshire (5,900), Rhode Island (4,800), and Vermont (800). All told, the association projects just under 1 million New Englanders and New Yorkers will be employed at restaurants this summer, out of the nation’s 9.75 million total in that industry.

Hudson Riehle, the trade group’s senior vice president of research, said restaurant operator optimism “has increased steadily” this year, indicating that the end of the current months-long downturn in sales may be in sight.

“While overall U.S. employment growth remains negative, the industry is bucking that trend as it added jobs in May for the first time in 10 months,” Riehle said in statement.

That optimism comes despite dour sales reports, as consumers continue to cut back on restaurant trips and make more meals at home. The association itself said Tuesday that restaurant operators nationwide reported same-store sales declines for the 12th consecutive month in May, while customer traffic levels dropped for the 21st consecutive month.

However, some chains continue to see strong traffic among budget-minded families and office workers, and have been boosting hiring for the summer.

The National Restaurant Association said more than a third of operators surveyed last month, 34 percent, expect economic conditions to improve in six months, double the proportion who expect things to get worse. Also, 41 percent plan to make a capital expenditure for equipment, expansion or remodeling in the next six months.

Nationwide, the food service industry in May added just under 9,000 jobs compared with April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the unemployment rate in that sector rose from 9.7 percent in April to 12.1 percent in May.

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