Restaurant sales are forecast to exceed $1.1 trillion this year, marking a new milestone for the industry that will employ over 15.7 million people in the United States by the end of 2024. This is according to the National Restaurant Association 2024 State of the Restaurant Industry Report.
“With more than $1 trillion in sales expected this year, the state of the restaurant industry is strong thanks to the agility of its operators and employees,” said Michelle Korsmo, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.
“As our report shows, restaurants are finding ways to adapt to the challenges of increased food costs and supply chain disruption. Restaurants have responded well to customers’ desire to have more opportunities to enjoy restaurant meals, which continues to grow sales, create employment opportunities, and foster a strong sense of community,” added Korsmo.
Key findings from the Restaurant Industry Sales report include:
- Positive sales expected: Restaurant operators are cautiously optimistic about the year ahead, with nearly 8 in 10 predicting their sales will increase (33 percent) or hold steady (45 percent) from 2023.
- Delivery, carry-out, and drive-thru growth continues: 52 percent of consumers—including 67 percent of millennials and 63 percent of Gen Z adults—say ordering takeout from a restaurant is an essential part of their lifestyle, further showing restaurants’ profound impact on consumers’ lives.
- Industry employment increased, but help still wanted: Forty-five percent of restaurant operators report needing more employees to meet customer demand, and a majority (70 percent) have job openings that are hard to fill.
- Profitability remains challenged: Operators are slightly less optimistic about profitability, with only 27 percent of operators expecting to be more profitable this year. Average food costs have increased more than 20 percent, and average wages have grown more than 30 percent since 2019, impacting profitability.
- Jobs drive consumer spending: All restaurant sales are local, and consumers are generally upbeat about their community. Fifty-five percent of adults describe their local economy, including the availability of jobs, as excellent or good.
Technology, Special Deals, and Promotions
Consumers’ affinity for technology in restaurants varies, so operators are strategically deciding how to incorporate technology into the experience.
For full-service restaurants, nearly half (46 percent) of adults think technology has a positive impact, and this number weighs heavily on younger consumers (64 percent of Gen Z and 66 percent of Millennials). Similarly, according to the research, this group is more likely to want more technology options.
These preferences can help operators decide where and how to invest. In 2023, just under half (48 percent) of operators made technology investments to enhance the customer experience, but 60 percent plan to invest in 2024.
The areas where consumers say the technology would positively impact their personal experience include options that make ordering and paying easier and faster.
Related Article: Food Price Outlook Improves in 2024
If consumers are somewhat split on technology, they can agree on the value of a special deal or discount, with 7 in 10 adults saying they often look for a daily special or discount.
Customers (85 percent) are more flexible about when they dine if it comes with a deal, and 84 percent said they’d take advantage of deals offered for dining at off-peak times. Further, 75 percent of adults would opt for smaller-sized portions for a lower price—a trend that can help restaurants curb food waste and improve profits.
The data suggests focusing on loyalty and rewards programs to further fuel customer retention.
Customers prefer to see this program on a smartphone app, further enforcing the need for technological innovation and creating additional touchpoints between customers and restaurants.
Restaurant Industry Employment to Reach 15.7 Million in 2024
The restaurant and foodservice industry is projected to add 200,000 jobs in 2024, bringing total industry employment to 15.7 million. Between 2024 and 2032, the industry is projected to add 150,000 jobs annually on average, with total staffing levels reaching 16.9 million by 2032.
Despite this expansion, 45 percent of operators say their restaurant needs more employees to support existing customer demand.
Operators looking for the necessary support are turning to the gig economy and technology. One in four operators say using gig workers to fill in staffing will become more common in their segment in 2024, and nearly half (47 percent) of operators say using technology and automation to help with the current labor shortage will become more common.
Food Cost and Availability Influence Menus the Most
If consumers notice menu changes more frequently, it’s often the result of increased food costs.
In the past year, operators report needing to find new suppliers, remove items from their menus, adjust portion sizes, or substitute lower-cost items, all in response to elevated food prices.
The availability of food items also impacted menu composition, with more than three-quarters (77 percent) of operators saying their restaurants experienced supply delays or shortages of key food or beverage items in 2023. These changes will challenge operators, especially with most adults (86 percent) saying they like ample menu choices.
Social Media is Helping
Further directing menu choices are social media trends. As the National Restaurant Association’s 2024 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast shows, savvy operators are turning to TikTok and other social media platforms to be inspired and to fire up viral trends.
Operators must be strategic in balancing thoughtfully streamlined, food-cost-effective menus and enough variety to satisfy demand and lead the latest trends.
Off-premises remains a crucial area of opportunity for those offering it, and customers agree, with a vast majority (88 percent) reporting being satisfied with the variety of local food options for takeout and delivery.
Customers view takeout in new ways, with two-thirds (67 percent) of adults saying they’d be interested in subscriptions offering a specified number of meals each month and half (53 percent) saying they’re open to supplementing home-cooked meals with restaurant-prepared items.
“This is a historic and exciting year for the restaurant industry,” added Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President of the Research and Knowledge Group for the National Restaurant Association. “While challenges remain—including inflation, recruitment, higher operating costs, and profitability—restaurant operators will continue to innovate and evolve to meet customer demands.”