Top growth opportunities for restaurants


Shifting consumer preferences for more healthful menu choices and changing demographics will shape the restaurant industry’s growth in the year ahead, according to a new report from The NPD Group.

Consumer demand for meals and snacks prepared at restaurants is expected to rise slightly above 2011 levels in the coming year, and restaurants likely will feel the need to improve the health perceptions of their food. Restaurants also may look to ratchet up flavor profiles for customers in booming segments of the population, the report found.

“We’re forecasting a continued slow recovery for the restaurant industry in 2012,” Bonnie Riggs, the NPD Group’s foodservice industry analyst, said in a statement. “Still, there will be pockets of real growth, behaviors supporting traffic that will outpace overall demand. To tap into that growth, however, operators need to understand what influences will affect consumer behavior and drive traffic in the next 12 months.”

The key opportunities on restaurant menus in the coming year are healthfulness and flavors targeted to fast-growing groups of people, the company said.

Healthful options abound

The Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm’s CREST service found that sales of healthful foods have outpaced more indulgent or fattening items during the past few years — and that trend is expected to intensify in 2012. As a result of ongoing legislative activity and publicity campaigns aimed at the restaurant industry, children under 13 years old have been consuming more fruit, cereal, non-fried chicken and wrap sandwiches in restaurants, NPD found.

That healthful focus is widespread in January, when consumers are more mindful of their eating habits because of New Year’s resolutions. Chains including Applebee’s, The Cheesecake Factory and Denny’s have put their marketing dollars behind low-calorie menus in the early part of the year.

Luby’s, Tony Roma’s, Chick-fil-A and TCBY also rolled out new menu items with a greater emphasis on healthfulness recently. Copeland’s of New Orleans and Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro also debuted “Lite” menus last week. Each restaurant now offers six new entrees with 550 or fewer calories, as well as two low-calorie desserts.