America’s one million restaurants will continue to be a leading job creator in 2015, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2015 Restaurant Industry Forecast released today. While the operating environment will remain challenging, total restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record $709.2 billion in 2015— a 3.8 percent increase over 2014, marking the sixth consecutive year of real sales growth for the industry.

This year will also mark the 16th consecutive year in which restaurant industry employment will outpace overall employment growth. Restaurants will employ 14 million individuals this year as the nation’s second-largest private sector employer, representing about 10 percent of the total U.S. workforce.

“Our nation’s restaurants continue to be an essential part of Americans’ daily lives and play a vital role in every community across the country,” says Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the NRA. “Although operators will continue to face a range of complex challenges in 2015, the restaurant and foodservice industry remains a fundamental driver of the nation’s economy while providing valuable careers and opportunities to 14 million Americans.”

“With the economy slowly improving and national employment trending upward, signs are pointing in the right direction for restaurant industry growth,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the NRA. “Certain components of the business climate remain a challenge, accelerating industry sales in some regions and putting a damper on them in others, but the overall industry is definitely in a better place now than several years ago.”

Highlights include:

  • Eating and drinking places are expected to add jobs at a solid 3.2 percent rate in 2015, a full percentage point above the projected 2.2 percent gain in total U.S. employment.
  • While every state is expected to see their restaurant industry workforce expand during the next decade, the top five states are: Arizona, Florida, Texas, Georgia (21.1 %) and Utah (21.0%).
  • Average wholesale food prices jumped more than 5 percent in 2014, which represented the fifth consecutive annual increase. Operators can expect to get pricing relief on several of the major commodities in 2015, including dairy and pork.
  • Labor costs will remain a concern for operators in 2015. Challenges with Affordable Care Act implementation and minimum wage increases have made a significant impact on restaurant bottom lines; typically one-third of restaurant sales are spent on labor.
  • Roughly one-quarter of consumers say technology options are important features that factor into their decision to choose a restaurant (up from the nearly one-fifth that said the same the year prior).
  • Eight in 10 consumers say restaurants offer more healthful menu options now compared to two years ago, and 76 percent say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers healthful options.