NRA: Embracing technology, menu trends key in 2014

The National Restaurant Association predicted that restaurant sales will hit $683 billion this year, up from the $659 billion reported in 2013, Hudson Riehle, NRA's SVP of Research and Knowledge Group, said Thursday afternoon during the NRA's 2014 Industry Forecast. That stat encompasses higher sales at both table-service and limited-service restaurants, which will increase this year from $207 billion in 2013 to $212 billion in 2014 and from $187 to $195 billion, respectively.

Riehle also reported that nine out of 10 Americans said they enjoy going to restaurants but that 43 percent don't visit them as frequently as they'd like. Consumers are looking for that nudge to spend money in restaurants, and it's the operators job to give it to them, Riehle said.

Attracting customers

Being smart about menu prices, managing food trends and implementing technology are three ways to drive traffic, said Riehle, who reported that 72 percent of all adults polled said they'd be willing to eat out more often if prices were lower during off-peak times.

Riehle also pointed out that customers are demanding to engage with restaurants via technology. For example, 67 percent have used their smartphones or tablets to look up a restaurant location, 63 percent have used a computer to view menus or place orders and 52 percent have used tablets or smartphones to place a takeout order. Another 50 percent has used a smartphone or tablet to receive loyalty rewards, and those percentages are all in the 80s when to comes to adults between the ages of 18-24.

A third way for restaurant operators to attract more consumers is to ensure that they are on trend when it comes to menus. For example, the top menu trends this year at full-service restaurants are:

  1. Locally sourced meats and seafood
  2. Locally grown produce
  3. Environmental sustainability
  4. Healthful kids' meals
  5. Gluten-free cuisine

Similarly, the top limited-service trends included: 

  1. Gluten-free items
  2. Healthful kids' meals
  3. Spicy items
  4. Fruit/vegetable sides in kids' meals
  5. Locally sourced produce

Restaurant employment

In 2014, the restaurant industry will employ 13.5 million adults working in 990,000 units, and the restaurant job growth will again outpace the national rate of overall job growth. In 2013, restaurant job growth increased by 3.3 percent, while the national job rate was up only 1.6 percent. The NRA expects similar stats this year with the national job growth increasing by 1.8 percent and the restaurant job growth increasing by 2.8 percent.

Another interesting stat is the age of the restaurant workforce is changing, Riehle said. For years, workers ages 16 to 24 have made up the majority of restaurant employees, but those numbers are expected to decline by 2.8 million by 2022. The growth rates of people over the age of 55, however, will increase dramatically.

The biggest challenge to the industry

Although nine out of 10 consumers said they are still not impressed by the economy, restaurant operators don't view it as their biggest challenge. Instead, they point to the government; 30 percent of them in 2013 named it as their biggest area of concern. In 2012 and 2011, the economy took that spot.

"(This year) will be a positive future for the industry despite a few challenges," Riehle said.

Read more about trends.

Cover image: Courtesy of NRA.

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