Restaurant traffic is projected to stay flat for the rest of 2011 and into the first part of 2012 because of “the continued economic saga of high unemployment and low consumer confidence,” according to researchers at the NPD Group.

Although many restaurants have offered bargains, the incentives often were not as effective in luring customers as they had been in the past, said NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs.  In addition, diners actually spent more at restaurants because their meals were costlier this year, due in part to rising food prices.  Diners spent 1.3 percent more in the third quarter of 2011 than they did a year earlier, the NPD Group said.

Casual dining restaurants, representing 11 percent of the restaurant industry, have seen visitor numbers slip since at least 2009.  Mid-scale restaurants, representing 10 percent of the restaurant industry, have been losing diners for the same amount of time, according to the NPD Group.  Fast-food restaurants, which account for 78 percent of customer visits, saw a 1 percent increase in patrons in the first quarter, year-over-year, but then stayed flat for the next two.  Only fine-dining restaurants, which suffered double-digit loses in 2009, before recovering in mid-2010, has seen steady growth.

In total, restaurants counted 61 billion visits thus far in 2011, said Riggs, adding that “next  year the outlook is brighter.”