“That’s a staggering sum,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president, Research & Knowledge Group, National Restaurant Association, during a presentation at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, held May 20-23 in Chicago. “If the restaurant industry was actually a country in the global economy, the restaurant industry now in the United States is larger than 90 percent of the world economies.”
Consumer trends have shifted in the industry’s favor, with now almost $1 out of every $2 spent on food allocated to restaurants. That’s up from $1 out of every $4 in 1955.
Now, for the bad news. In the past 10 years, the restaurant industry’s growth has slowed significantly.
Restaurant operators are not so optimistic about sales gains in the months ahead. Only 32 percent of those surveyed by the NRA expect higher sales in six months, and only 28 percent expect economic conditions to improve in six months.
Declining same-store sales and customer traffic have contributed to the bearish outlook. Fifty-four percent of restaurant operators recorded a decrease in same-store sales from last year, the NRA found, and 63 percent saw a decline in customer traffic from last year.
The fast-casual segment continues to outpace other industry segments in sales growth, with the top 250 chains growing sales a cumulative 8.4 percent in 2016 to a total of $40.4 billion, said Technomic Inc., Chicago. However, that number is a drop compared to the 11.9 percent sales growth in 2015 and 13.8 percent growth in 2014.
Future growth for the fast-casual segment may come from specialty and health-focused concepts, Technomic said, citing chains such as Sweetgreen, Modern Market and Lemonade as companies to watch.
On the consumer side, pent-up demand for restaurant eating remains high; 42 percent of consumers aren’t dining out as often as they would like, which compares with 27 percent in 2006. Moreover, the key millennial demographic is saddled with student debt.
While perceptions of the economy have improved, most consumers maintain a dampened outlook.
“Value proposition has to be stronger than ever today,” Riehle said.
“With video menu boards in quick-service restaurants and tablets in table service, it is now possible for operators to change pricing by time of day,” he said.
Restaurant meal subscriptions present another opportunity, enticing cost-conscious consumers and helping operators generate incremental demand. Forty-two percent of consumers said they would join a monthly program that pays in advance for restaurant meals with such benefits as discounts and exclusive offers.
“Over half of millennials would subscribe to a restaurant meal plan,” Riehle said. “Why? They grew up with the Netflix model.”
He added, “In the years ahead there is going to be a lot of innovative pricing, not only in terms of by time of day but in terms of subscription models.”
But many consumers hesitate to adopt cutting-edge technology, and operators face such barriers as cost of implementation and transaction fees.
“When consumers dine out, there are some attributes that play into their decision matrix,” Stensson said. “Convenience, value and food quality are important, but what’s on the menu also matters.”
The availability of healthy menu items is an important driver, she said. Two in three consumers said they are ordering more healthful options in restaurants now than two years ago.
Today, consumers perceive free-from foods as a foundation of a healthy, balanced lifestyle, said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show. Citing Mintel data, Kruse said 84 percent of consumers seek more natural, less processed foods, and 59 percent agree foods with fewer ingredients are healthier.
“From my point of view as a trend watcher, this is the No. 1 single biggest trend of the past decade, hands down,” Kruse said. “What has been surprising to me about this trend is the velocity with which it has moved through our industry. It used to be a fringe issue, and it’s as if the switch were flipped, and it swept through with remarkable rapidity.”
McDonald’s Corp., Chicago, for example, has in recent months announced a series of menu changes and commitments, which have included a transition to cage-free eggs and the removal of artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets. More recently, the fast-food chain said it has eliminated artificial flavors in its vanilla soft-serve.
“This has just been a home run for Denny’s,” Kruse said, adding that the launch lifted same-store sales and boosted orders for the brand.
The next phase in the clean menu movement, Kruse predicted, will be sourcing smaller chickens.
“The thinking is the hens lead longer healthier lives and therefore their meat is of a higher quality,” she said, adding that Wendy’s Co. and Subway have recently pledged to purchase smaller birds.