Shifting consumer preferences for more healthful menu choices and changing demographics will shape the restaurant industry’s growth in the year ahead, according to a new report from The NPD Group.
Consumer demand for meals and snacks prepared at restaurants is expected to rise slightly above 2011 levels in the coming year, and restaurants likely will feel the need to improve the health perceptions of their food. Restaurants also may look to ratchet up flavor profiles for customers in booming segments of the population, the report found.
“We’re forecasting a continued slow recovery for the restaurant industry in 2012,” Bonnie Riggs, the NPD Group’s foodservice industry analyst, said in a statement. “Still, there will be pockets of real growth, behaviors supporting traffic that will outpace overall demand. To tap into that growth, however, operators need to understand what influences will affect consumer behavior and drive traffic in the next 12 months.”
The key opportunities on restaurant menus in the coming year are healthfulness and flavors targeted to fast-growing groups of people, the company said.
Healthful options abound
The Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm’s CREST service found that sales of healthful foods have outpaced more indulgent or fattening items during the past few years — and that trend is expected to intensify in 2012. As a result of ongoing legislative activity and publicity campaigns aimed at the restaurant industry, children under 13 years old have been consuming more fruit, cereal, non-fried chicken and wrap sandwiches in restaurants, NPD found.
That healthful focus is widespread in January, when consumers are more mindful of their eating habits because of New Year’s resolutions. Chains including Applebee’s, The Cheesecake Factory and Denny’s have put their marketing dollars behind low-calorie menus in the early part of the year.
Luby’s, Tony Roma’s, Chick-fil-A and TCBY also rolled out new menu items with a greater emphasis on healthfulness recently. Copeland’s of New Orleans and Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro also debuted “Lite” menus last week. Each restaurant now offers six new entrees with 550 or fewer calories, as well as two low-calorie desserts.
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Consumer demographics influence offerings
Demand from consumers in fast-growing demographic groups, like Hispanics and Asian-Americans, as well as the changing tastes of baby boomers and Millennials, are influencing the restaurant industry.
Hispanics and Asian-Americans are expected to drive demand not only for foods suited to the diverse American population, NPD found, but also for flavors that are bolder and spicier. Such trends could play out in individual menu items — such as the Doritos Locos Taco that Taco Bell tested through the end of 2011, or the new Santa Fe Turkey Burger being tested at Carl’s Jr. — or in new restaurant brands. Chipotle Mexican Grill, for example, plans to open a second location of its fast-casual ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen.
Other industry trends for brands to consider in 2012 include increased competition from outside retailers like convenience stores and grocery stores, and social media’s loyalty program capabilities.
The research firm also expects more recovery in the lunch daypart, as economic indicators like unemployment and consumer confidence have improved in recent months. Many casual-dining brands tried to drive midday traffic during the recession and the following slow recovery with aggressive deals, like Olive Garden’s $6.95 Half Panini Lunch and Applebee’s Pick ‘N Pair Lunch combos, starting at $6.99.
NPD also anticipated food cost pressures for beef, chicken and coffee in 2012, necessitating many chains to favor less costly dishes. At quick-service restaurants in particular, NPD said, specialty beverages present an opportunity to build incremental sales, meaning the segment is likely to promote beverage loyalty programs, late-night and happy-hour promotions for specialty drinks, and growth in noncarbonated drinks.