It’s no surprise that dining out is as common as dining at home these days and that Americans are expecting more from their restaurant experiences than ever before. The nation’s 935,000 restaurants are ready to deliver by monitoring the latest consumer and food trends to satisfy increasingly adventurous diners who also place a high premium on convenience and value. New research from the National Restaurant Association’s 2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast released today reveals what these trends are and how restaurants are keeping up with them.

“Restaurants are becoming homes away from home for today’s busy Americans who are looking for exciting culinary experiences, and restaurants continue to deliver those experiences,” says Steven C. Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Association. “In addition to serving as a social oasis for busy individuals, restaurants also use technology solutions to enhance the dining experience. Chefs are keeping a close eye on emerging trends and are getting creative with ethnic influences and exotic ingredients while the restaurant operators are making the dining experience more convenient than ever.”

In assessing food and beverage trends, the Association went right to the source and surveyed more than 1,000 chefs on what the hottest menu trends are. The results show that bite-sized desserts, locally grown produce, organic produce, flatbread and bottled water top the list. Additional “hot” items include pomegranates; figs; grass-fed and free-range meat; fresh herbs and exotic mushrooms; whole-grain breads and focaccia; Mediterranean, Latin American and Pan Asian fusion cuisines; salts, aged meats and ginger; pan-seared, grilled and braised items; specialty sandwiches; and Asian appetizers. The chefs rated Scandinavian cuisine, star fruit, organ meats/sweetbreads, and kiwi as some of the least trendy items.

Additional research reveals that organic items are growing in popularity across the board at table service restaurants. Among fine dining restaurants that currently serve organic items (more than six out of 10), 52 percent expect higher sales in 2007; 42 percent of casual dining restaurants that serve organic menu items (four out of 10) expect them to grow; and 27 percent of family dining restaurants (currently, three out of 10 offer organic items) report similarly.

Locally produced food items are also growing in popularity at table service restaurants. Eighty-seven percent of fine dining restaurants serve local items, compared to about three out of four family and casual dining restaurants. Fifty-one percent of fine dining, 38 percent of casual dining, and 31 percent of family dining operators expect sales of locally-sourced items to grow in 2007.

As for beverages, wine is becoming increasingly popular at restaurants. Among fine dining operators, 65 percent expect wine to represent a larger proportion of sales in 2007 while 50 percent of casual dining and 37 percent of family dining operators expect the same. Among non-alcoholic beverages, restaurant operators expect bottled water to gain in popularity with 46 percent of fine dining, 35 percent of casual dining, and 30 percent of family dining operators saying it will represent a larger proportion of sales in 2007.

When it comes to quick service restaurants, many are following the long-term trend of health and wellness, offering and promoting healthful options and diversifying their menus. In addition, some of the fastest growing menu items in quick service include espresso/specialty coffee, chicken sandwiches, energy drinks, deli-style sandwiches, wraps/pitas/tortillas, bottled water, and entrée salads.

Some of the consumer industry trends also include comfort, convenience, and value. Many restaurants are increasing usage of technology to make operations more efficient and allow diners more control over their dining experience. For example, forty-six percent of Americans say they are likely to use customer-activated ordering and payment terminals if available in their favorite table service restaurant. As the first “restaurant generation,” younger consumers are more likely to do so, as 71 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds and 64 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds say they would. About half of all adults and roughly two-thirds of those aged 18 to 34 say they would use a self-serve order and payment terminal at a quick service restaurant if it was available.

Convenience is still key when it comes to dining choices for today’s Americans. Restaurants continue to expand on existing takeout, curbside pickup, drive-thru, catering, and delivery options to allow consumers to enjoy restaurant-prepared meals at home, in the office, or at their special events. Yet, Americans are starting to take back their mealtimes. Thirty-six percent of adults say they are eating on-the-go less frequently now than they did two years ago. In addition, 48 percent say they eat in their car less frequently.

Restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record $537 billion in 2007-a solid 5.0 percent increase over 2006 sales. The nation’s 935,000 restaurant-and-foodservice outlets will employ 12.8 million individuals, and add 2 million new career and employment opportunities in the next decade. As Americans spend 47.9 percent of their food budget in restaurants, the industry is heading into 2007 as an economic powerhouse and an essential part of Americans’ lifestyle.

News, Food Industry