The National Restaurant Association (NRA) predicts 2014 will see the fifth consecutive year of restaurant industry sales growth, projecting sales to exceed $683 billion -- up 3.6% from the 2013 total of $659.3 billion.

"As the industry enters its fifth straight year of real sales growth,” explains Hudson Riehle, senior vice president, Research & Knowledge for the NRA, “operators are feeding consumer appetites with new technology, customer loyalty efforts, and evolving menu options.”

Interesting, Riehle further notes that there is a “historically high pent-up demand for restaurant services” among consumers. A December 2013 NRA survey of adult consumers found two out of five indicating they are not using a restaurant as often as they would like. When/if the economy improves, this should translate into increased sales.

While the restaurant scene appears to be a booming one, it is not without its pitfalls, food costs chief among them. In fact, NRA predicts continued high wholesale food costs throughout this year. As for the menu options, restaurants are heeding consumer demands for healthier fare. Eight out of 10 consumers believe restaurants have a greater number of healthy menu items than they did two years ago, and seven out of 10 are more likely to frequent a restaurant with healthier items. As for the trends, themselves, NRA’s research finds local sourcing and efforts at improved nutrition (healthful children’s meals and gluten-free options, for example) among the top trends in the industry. Indeed, the association’s “What’s Hot” culinary forecast, a survey of nearly 1,300 professional chefs, pegs the top menu trends for this year as local sourcing, environmental sustainability and nutrition, particularly children’s nutrition, and the experts foresee these as long-lasting trends. The survey asked the participants to identify which current food trend would be the hottest menu trends in 10 years, and the list looked quite similar, with environmental sustainability leading the way, followed by local sourcing, health/nutrition, children’s nutrition and gluten-free cuisine. Interestingly, those items are also the only trends that have remained in the top 20 food trends from the survey of five years ago. 

For the Kids
Children’s menus have proven a focus of late for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), particularly beverages directed at young diners. Noting that McDonald’s agreed to drop soda and sugary drinks from Happy Meal menus last year, the advocacy group and 100 U.S. and local health organizations and  nutritional experts sent a letter to Wendy’s, Burger King and 21 other restaurant chains, requesting that they follow McDonald’s lead and remove such items from their children’s menus.

"With 1-in-3 children overweight or obese in the U.S., it no longer makes sense to include sugary beverages in restaurant meals for young children," the letter said. The groups quoted research published in The Lancet that found drinking just one additional sugary drink every day increases a child's chances of becoming obese by 60%.

As it is, restaurant visits by families with children under the age of 13 have continued their five-year-long decline, reports The NPD Group. Over the past six years, families with children made 1 billion fewer visits to U.S. restaurants, compared to 306 million fewer visits by adult-only parties. This may not have been the largest demographic of restaurant diners, accounting for 20% of total restaurant sales, but that still represents $83.7 billion.

Panera Bread is among those that already omitted sugary beverages from children’s menus, and the chain recently took efforts to communicate a comprehensive set of commitments around its food. The food policy, as the chain terms it, commits to clean ingredients (those without artificial additives and “ingredients [the chain] does not believe should be in food”), transparency and “a positive impact (on the food system) rooted in craft” (noting that guests deserve to know the source of their food and the impact of the company on the food system). The announcement follows past Panera accomplishments, including ridding its menu of trans fats, posting calories on menu boards and sourcing chicken raised without antibiotics. For its part, Chick-fil-A has announced it will likewise serve only chicken raised without antibiotics within the next five years, once it builds “an adequate supply of antibiotic-free chickens for its nearly 1,800 restaurants.”

Manufacturers offering healthier and on-trend options for foodservice operators were well on display at the NRA Show in May. Gardein showcased a Vegan Fishless Filet, made with non-GMO soy and wheat, ancient grains and vegetables and promising the omega-3s of fish but without cholesterol or trans fat. In addition, the 100% vegan product meets the demands of consumers looking for a good source of fiber.

The NRA Show also demonstrated the impact the gluten-free trend has had on the foodservice arena, as a wealth of such options could be found, including snacks from Enjoy Life Foods and a gluten-free deep dish pizza from Kiki’s Gluten Free Foods. The latter noted its pizza is frozen and packaged, to prevent cross contamination, and promises a Chicago-style pizza. Diamond Crystal Brands introduced Flavor Fresh & House Blend Liquid Portions, a line of dressings, sauces and condiments that are low in sodium and free of trans fat, with no added high-fructose corn syrup or gluten-containing ingredients. The company notes it was developed to appeal to K-12 students and to help schools provide healthier menus. Also avoiding gluten was Deya’s Gluten Free, whose flour utilizes dried egg whites as a key ingredient and is designed as a one-for-one replacement for regular flour.

As Julia Gallo-Torres, category manager - US foodservice Oxygen reports with Mintel Menu Insights, predicts, “The number of allergen-related claims [on restaurant menus] will continue to gain momentum, as more people are officially diagnosed with specific allergies and their families also go on restricted diets to help keep them healthy. Leaning toward health, there also is a surge in vegetarian and vegan foods. People also want to know where their foods are coming from. Consumers will continue to look to menus for guidance on what to eat.”