Despite sluggish recovery by the nation’s economy, the restaurant industry is projected to expand in 2012, according to the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast  issued this week.  Total restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record high of $632 billion in 2012, a 3.5 percent increase over 2011, marking the second consecutive year that industry sales have topped $600 billion.  In addition, the restaurant industry will continue to fuel U.S. employment in the year ahead 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 U.S. workforce.  The foodservice industry is expected to gain back all of the jobs lost during the recession by early 2012.  The overall economy isn’t expected to be back at pre-recession employment levels until 2014, NRA said.  “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,” NRA predicted.

According to the NRA’s 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast, food quality, customer service, quality and value are the top attributes consumers look-for when choosing a tableservice restaurant.  For quickservice restaurants, customers are looking for food quality, value and speed of service when picking where to dine.  When it comes to food, the top menu trends are all about local sourcing and nutrition, especially kids’ nutrition.  Nearly three-quarters of consumers say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food items, and more than half of all restaurants currently offer locally sourced produce.  Similarly, nearly three-quarters of consumers say they are trying to eat healthier now at restaurants than they did two years ago, and a majority of restaurants agree that customers are ordering more such items, NRA concluded.