WASHINGTON — Despite continued macroeconomic challenges, restaurant industry sales are expected to exceed $683 billion in 2014, up 3.6% from last year, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 Restaurant Industry Forecast. Still, operators may continue to face pressures from food and labor costs and the spending-shy consumer.

“Despite facing a range of challenges, America’s restaurants are showing continued resiliency and innovation,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of Research & Knowledge for the National Restaurant Association (NRA). “As the industry enters its fifth straight year of real sales growth, operators are feeding consumer appetites with new technology, customer loyalty efforts and evolving menu options.” Helping to reboot the industry are innovations in technology, with one-fifth of consumers considering technology options as an important factor when choosing a full-service restaurant and more than one-fifth factoring technology options when choosing a limited-service restaurant. The numbers skew higher for 18- to 34-year olds.  

Local sourcing and better-for-you options remain top trends in the industry. Eight out of 10 consumers agreed restaurants offer more healthy menu items now compared to two years ago, and 7 out of 10 said they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers more nutritious fare. Environmental sustainability also has emerged as a top trend, with nearly 3 out of 5 consumers saying they are more likely to choose a restaurant based on its eco-friendly practices.

Employment growth in the industry is projected to outpace overall employment growth for the 15th consecutive year. Food service remains the nation’s second-largest private employer with 990,000 restaurants employing 13.5 million individuals, or about 10% of the total workforce in the United States. Restaurants are expected to add jobs at a 2.8% rate in 2014, compared with the projected 1.8% increase in total U.S. employment. States in the southern and western regions of the United States will lead the way in food service job growth over the next 10 years.

“As our nation continues its road to recovery, the restaurant industry will remain a key driver of economic growth and a leading jobs creator,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the N.R.A. “Restaurants touch every community across the U.S., and 2014 will be a year of growth and innovation as the industry focuses on inspired new ways to meet consumer demand while providing valuable careers to millions of Americans.” 

Still, restaurant operators will feel the burn of elevated food and labor costs, including challenges associated with health care reform and increases in minimum wage.

Additionally, with 60% of adults describing a poor or fair personal financial picture, consumers are expected to continue cutting back on spending. But demand is expected to grow, with 2 out of 5 consumers saying they are not dining out as often as they would like.

“Consumers currently have a historically high pent-up demand for restaurant services, which is likely to translate into a business boost as the economy continues to improve — and our nation's food service operators are rising to the challenge,” Riehle said.