Consumer Corner: Healthy, local and gluten-free tops menu

By MICHELLE GROENKE  |  April 29, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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CHICAGO, April 29 (UPI) -- Healthy kids meals, gluten-free options and locally sourced ingredients are among the top priorities for consumers deciding where to go for dinner, analysts say.

Consumers also say they want less salt and fat, and more spice in their food, although bite-sized dessert items always are welcome.

Restaurant owners say business is good these days as people with a few extra dollars in their wallets are choosing to spend it on food and beverages. As the National Restaurant Association prepares for its annual trade show, which starts Saturday, the 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast finds total restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record $632 billion in 2012, a 3.5 percent increase from last year.

If "locally sourced, regional cuisine" sounds almost cliche in 2012, the way Tex-Mex or Asian fusion did in years past, that's because restaurants know they need to stay on top of trends.

Nearly three-quarters of consumers said they're trying to maker healthier choices at restaurants than they did two years ago, the industry forecast said, and a majority of restaurants said customers are actually following through and ordering the healthier items. While a bite-sized cheesecake is still cheesecake, at least the portion is more manageable.

The National Restaurant Association's "What's Hot in 2012" survey, released in December, found consumers have become more aware of where their meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and even alcoholic beverages are being produced. Nearly three-quarters of consumers said they're more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food items.

The National Restaurant Association says increased sales means more job opportunities in the recovering economy. Restaurants have added more than 560,000 jobs since the beginning of the employment recovery, with more than 200,000 of those positions created in the last six months.

Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive officer of the association says, the restaurant industry is one of the strongest job creators in nation, with a workforce of nearly 13 million.

Restaurants added more than 100,000 jobs in two consecutive quarters for the first time on record, an analysis of preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.

Places that serve food and beverages added 101,400 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2011 and 103,100 jobs in the first quarter of 2012.

The National Restaurant Association said current industry staffing levels stand more than 180,000 jobs above the pre-recession peak. The group said an additional 1.4 million positions are expected to be created in the next decade, reaching 14.3 million.

"Restaurants are the cornerstone of career and entrepreneurship opportunities," Sweeney said when the figures were released last quarter. "Our industry prides itself on providing these opportunities to individuals of all backgrounds."

Food costs are a top business concern right now.

"Restaurant operators are bullish about sales growth in the months ahead even though higher food costs are a challenge," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA's Research & Knowledge Center. "Fifty-three percent of all operators said they expect their sales to be higher over the next six months."

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