WASHINGTON — US restaurant industry sales are expected to achieve a record $604 billion and post positive growth in 2011 following a three-year period of negative real sales growth, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast. It predicts an industry sales increase of 3.6% over 2010 sales, which equals 1.1% in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.

The US’s 960,000 restaurants will continue to be strong contributors to the recovery of the nation’s economy, with industry sales representing 4% of the US gross domestic product and employees comprising nearly 10% of the US workforce. Its total economic impact exceeds $1.7 trillion, as every dollar spent in restaurants generates $2.05 spent in the overall economy. Restaurants are the nation’s second-largest private sector employer with 12.8 million employees.

Quick-service restaurants are projected to post sales of $167.7 billion this year, a gain of 3.3% over 2010. Sales at full-service restaurants are projected to reach $194.6 billion in 2011, an increase of 3.1% in current dollars over 2010.

The eating-and-drinking place segment expected to show the strongest growth in 2011 is social caterers, whose sales are expected to increase by 6.2%. Other commercial foodservice segments expected to post solid sales growth in 2011 are hotel restaurants (5.7%), hospitals and nursing homes (5.5%), and primary and secondary schools (4.8%).

Consumers today spend 49% of their food budget in the restaurant community, compared with only 25% in 1955, according to forecast. The economic downturn has created a substantial pent-up demand for restaurant services – more than two out of five consumers say they are not dining out or using takeout as often as they would like – which positions the restaurant industry for growth in 2011.

The forecast shows social media-savvy consumers (frequent users of at least one social media tool, including Facebook, Twitter, mobile phone applications such as Foursquare or Urban Spoon, or online review sites such as Yelp) are more active in the restaurant community. These individuals dine out more frequently than the general public: 92% eat a meal at a sit-down restaurant at least once a month (compared with 84% of all adults) and 87% purchase a meal or snack quick-service restaurant or carry-out place at least once a month (versus 83% of all adults).

Fifty-one percent of social media savvy individuals say restaurants are an essential part of their lifestyle, while among all consumers that number is 43% . This demographic is also much more likely to use in-store technology like electronic ordering and payment systems at the table, self-service kiosks, online ordering and mobile phone applications for placing orders.

Restaurant operators are also picking up on this trend, and more than eight out of 10 say social media will become a more important marketing tool in the future. More than half also say they are likely to incorporate Facebook, online review sites, Twitter and blogs into their marketing mix in the next two years.