WASHINGTON, DC – While sluggish growth continues to hound the US economy, the nation's restaurant industry is poised for impressive growth, according to the National Restaurant Association's 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast.

Total restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record high of $632 billion in 2012, up 3.5 percent over 2011, marking the second consecutive year that industry sales have topped $600 billion, according to the NRA report. Also, the restaurant industry will continue to fuel US employment as the nation’s second largest private sector employer. Overall restaurant industry employment will reach 12.9 million in 2012, representing 10 percent of the total US workforce, NRA said.

“As our nation slowly recovers from the economic downturn, restaurants continue to be a vital part of American lifestyles and our nation’s economy,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association. “We expect the nation’s nearly one million restaurants to post sales of $632 billion this year. Combine that with the fact that restaurant job growth is expected to outpace the overall economy for the 13th straight year, and it’s clear that the restaurant industry is once again proving to be a significant economic stimulant and strong engine for job creation.”

But 2012 will not be without challenges, according to the association. Restaurateurs cited the sluggish economy, rising food costs and maintaining sales volume as their top concerns.

“Because about one-third of sales in a restaurant go to food and beverage purchases, food prices are a crucial component for operators,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA's Research and Knowledge group. “Last year, we saw wholesale food prices post their strongest annual increase in more than three decades. In 2012, we will see continued increases in the cost of some commodities, while price pressures will ease for others.”

Another trend influencing the restaurant industry is the influx of technologies spurred by the astronomical growth in smartphone and iPad usage. While not commonplace in the industry, the NRA report said consumers have expressed an interest in services such as at-table electronic payment options, smartphone apps for restaurant menus and reservations, and online orders for takeout and delivery.