The good news, according to Susan Kleutsch, director of product development-foodservice for NPD Group, is "We still a country that likes to go out to eat." The bad news: the number of restaurants is declining as a result of the global recession. The challenge for foodservice suppliers: finding new opportunities in a tough market.

Kleutsch, who helped conduct a recent NPD survey that shows the total number of restaurants in the U.S. has declined by 4,000 units from Spring 2008 to spring of this year, mostly among independent operations, told that opportunities nevertheless exist in the big picture.

"While people, especially families, may be going to restaurants a little less frequently now than they have in the past, the numbers haven’t dropped off the table. Our CREST study" — Consumer Reports on Eating Share Trends — "shows that this year, the average number of meals or snacks purchased away from home for immediate consumption is 202, which is down from 206 in 2008." She said that while the 18-24-year-old generation is cutting back more than other generations, "the baby boomers are hardly cutting back at all." And the 18-24 year-olds will still purchase foods away from home for immediate consumption 227 times, on average, this year.

She also notes that when people do go out, they’re staying on a budget by cutting back on appetizers and desserts, not necessarily main courses. "Anything that a suppler can do for restaurant operators to help reduce costs is good," she said. "Also, prepared meals purchased at an in-store deli and similar meal solutions are becoming a big deal, so there’s another opportunity."

The economic climate puts even more time pressure on two-income households — a primary motivator for purchasing meals away from home. "I don’t see that changing. Eating out used to be a special occasion. Now, sometimes it’s just about filling your belly," she told

She said that foodservice will continue to emphasize "fresh, new and interesting, and at the same time value. If a supplier can help an operator with those things, that’s a supplier the operator wants to keep."