Motivated by mild winter weather, consumers increased their visits to restaurants and other commercial foodservice outlets by 1 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same quarter a year ago, turning in the strongest rate of traffic gain since the spring of 2008. A new report by market research company The NPD Group shows that U.S. consumers spent 3 percent more at commercial foodservice outlets this winter than they did a year ago, with more than half of the increase coming from higher checks.

While the winter of 2012 was a strong quarter for the foodservice industry, traffic growth was confined to the quick-service restaurant and fine dining/upscale hotel segments, according to NPD's Crest, which continuously tracks the foodservice industry based on consumer reporting of more than 400,000 visits to foodservice outlets a year.

Visits to QSRs increased by 2 percent over the same quarter last year, and major QSR chains had the strongest traffic growth, with a 3 percent increase in traffic.

Fine dining/upscale hotel restaurants generated a 6 percent increase in traffic. The midscale/family dining segment continued to struggle with traffic in the first quarter with visits down by 3 percent. Visits to casual dining restaurants were down 2 percent compared to winter 2011.

The morning meal daypart continued to outpace industry traffic, with visits up 3 percent compared to the same quarter a year ago. Lunch and supper have continued to hold traffic steady versus a year ago for the past two quarters while visits during the afternoon snack space were up by 1 percent.

The QSR segment grew at every daypart, with the strongest growth at the morning meal.

"Thanks to unusually mild weather, winter 2012 was a bright spot for the foodservice industry; however, the economic environment will continue to be a challenge for the sector," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. "We forecast a slowdown in traffic growth for the balance of 2012 as the country continues its slow economic recovery."

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