Attendees of the Restaurant Leadership Conference are presented with no fewer than four detailed reports on the health of the industry and what trends are contributing to or detracting from it. The consensus was that sales are accelerating, albeit moderately, because underlying macro factors like employment and general economic activity are improving. Declining gas prices were hailed as having a particularly positive effect on restaurant prices.
Bad weather temporarily chilled the economy in the first quarter, noted GE Capital’s Todd Jones, but the more persistent problem is income stagnation. About three of every four jobs lost during the Great Recession were middle or high-paying positions. Only 56 percent of the jobs that have been created since then fall in those income brackets, Jones said.
Traffic remains a challenge. Jones noted that customer counts for full-service restaurants are finally increasing, but TKn2K’s Victor Fernandez noted that overall industry traffic is still 11 percent below the pre-2008 level.
The statistics reeled off by the sales and traffic handicappers were leavened by the mention of some unexpected trends that could change the numbers. Among the new currents they noted:
1. DIY restaurant food
In a validation of restaurants’ addition of butcher shops, food markets and other sources of raw groceries, the National Restaurant Association’s Hudson Riehle noted that 48 percent of consumers say they would buy food from a restaurant to cook at home. The interest in what he called DIY food was particularly high (64 percent) among patrons aged 18 to 34.
2. Summertime blues
The optimal weather conditions for the industry’s busiest season are cooler-than-normal temperatures, said Riehle. But the forecast for this summer calls for higher-than-usual temperatures along the coast.
3. Exceptional spiciness is the new normal
For the first time since Technomic started collecting data, a majority (54 percent) of consumers prefer spicy foods. “It will be a really important part of menu innovation for years to come,” said the research company’s Darren Tristano.