Pressure to improve the healthfulness of kids’ meals and restaurant fare in general along with the influence of the growing Asian, Hispanic, Boomer, and Millennial population groups are among the factors that will shape the restaurant industry in 2012 and beyond, according to The NPD Group, a leading market research company. Overall, NPD’s foodservice market research forecast of U.S. commercial foodservice traffic projects consumer demand for restaurant-prepared meals/snacks to rise slightly above 2011 levels.

Kids meals have been the focus of legislative and health advocacy activities over the past few years and that focus is expected to continue throughout 2012. The continuing pressure on restaurant operators to improve the healthfulness of kids meals combined with increasing health consciousness among moms has resulted in children, younger than 13, eating more better-for-you foods like fruit, non-fried chicken, chicken wraps, cereal; and less of the not-so-good-for-you foods, like French fries, dessert items/frozen sweets, regular size burgers, and fried chicken, according to NPD’s CREST service, which continually tracks consumer usage of restaurants. In general, healthy and lighter foods are faring better than many foods and beverages consumers have learned should be controlled in their diets.  

In addition to restaurant consumers eating more healthful food, another growing influence in the industry is the rapid growth in the Hispanic and Asian population in the U.S., which will continue to drive demand for more ethnically diverse foods this year. Tastes will evolve, and consumers will seek spicier and more flavorful foods. The large Millennial and Boomer age groups will also influence restaurant foods. Based on NPD CREST information, juice drinks are also likely to grow, particularly among younger adults, along with food items popular among Boomers, like coffee, fish/seafood, and breakfast foods.

Other factors that will influence the restaurant industry in 2012 and beyond include:   

Retail competition will increase. Convenience stores are capturing more dashboard-dining occasions, delivering the benefits of fast, on-the-go, one-stop shopping. Supermarkets, on the other hand, are making inroads with prepared foods being taken home to eat.  

Work-related visits and lunch will experience a turn toward recovery. Unemployment has hit the work-related lunch occasion most heavily, and recent more positive economic indicators, such as reduced unemployment and increased consumer confidence, are encouraging. Some turn toward recovery of that meal occasion is anticipated in 2012, providing broad benefit to commercial and non-commercial operators.