While many businesses are still in the red from a slowly recovering economy, the restaurant industry expects to have its best year yet.
The National Restaurant Association has released its 2012 Industry Forecast, projecting that total industry sales will reach a record high of $632 billion, a 3.5 percent increase over 2011. The report also projects that restaurant employment will reach 12.9 million, accounting for 10 percent of the U.S. workforce.
"Combine that with the fact that restaurant job growth is expected to outpace the overall economy for the 13th straight year, and it's clear that the restaurant industry is once again proving to be a significant economic stimulant and strong engine for job creation," Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement.
Restaurant industry jobs are expected to increase 2.3 percent in 2012, compared to 1.3 percent growth for overall employment. Industry jobs are also expected to return to pre-recession numbers in early 2012.
To boost business, restaurateurs plan to increase their use of technology for ordering and menu services. Also, about nine of every 10 owners said their restaurant plans to use Facebook in 2012.
Among the top concerns for restaurateurs is the cost of food. Last year, wholesale food prices rose 8 percent, and industry projections estimate that costs will rise an additional 4 percent this year.
"Because about one-third of sales in a restaurant go to food and beverage purchases, food prices are a crucial component for operators," Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association's Research and Knowledge group, said in a statement. "Last year, we saw wholesale food prices post their strongest annual increase in more than three decades. In 2012, we will see continued increases in the cost of some commodities, while price pressures will ease for others."
This trend may cause consumers to see higher prices on their menus, though research shows that may not deter them, as two in five customers said they aren't dining in restaurants as often as they'd like.