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After several years of traffic declines, visits to restaurants during dinner time increased over the last three quarters, according to foodservice market research from The NPD Group, a market research company.

Supper visits increased 2 percent and 1 percent in the third and fourth quarters of 2010, respectively, and increased 2 percent in the first quarter of 2011, according to NPD's CREST service, which continually tracks consumer use of foodservice outlets.

Quick service restaurants, which represent 78 percent of total industry traffic, drove the growth, while visits at midscale and casual dining remained weak.

"The improvement may reflect some easing in unemployment, a modest improvement in consumer confidence, as well as a release of pent up demand during the periods reported," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. "I also believe that rising food costs in-home have narrowed the gap between the price of food at-home and a restaurant meal."

In addition to the traffic growth at supper, after eight consecutive quarters of traffic decline, customer counts at commercial restaurants started to improve in the third and fourth quarters of 2010 over the same quarters a year ago, and after ending the first quarter of 2011 flat. Weekend visits recovered across all dayparts and families with kids have been returning to restaurants over the last six months. Visits to quick service restaurants were up 1 percent compared to a year ago.

"There continue to be areas of weakness in the industry, but the industry did pick up in the last few prior quarters. It remains to be seen, however, if we'll be able to sustain the improvements given the current economic volatility," Riggs said. "All the reasons consumers go to restaurants — convenience, varied selections, someone else doing the cooking — are still valid and could continue to drive the industry's improvement."

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