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Pressure to improve the nutritional value of restaurant fare, including children's meals, will play a big role in the restaurant industry this year and beyond, according to market research firm The NPD Group.
Other factors shaping the industry's direction is the growing influence of Asian, Hispanic, Baby Boomer and Millennial demographics.
Also, NPD's market research forecast of U.S. commercial foodservice traffic projects consumer demand for restaurant-prepared meals/snacks to rise slightly above 2011 levels.
Children's 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 parents has resulted in children, younger than 13, eating more better-for-you foods such as fruit, non-fried chicken, chicken wraps and cereal; and less of the not-so-good-for-you foods, including 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.
Recent upgrades to kids' meals reflect this data, with QSR giants such as McDonald's, Arby's, Popeye's, Jack in the Box and Whataburger adding nutritional options such as fruit, yogurt and low-fat milk. Earlier this month, Chick-fil-A added grilled chicken nuggets as an entrée option in its kids' meals.
Additionally, the National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining teamed up last summer to introduce the Kids LiveWell initiative, with 19 chains signing on as inaugural participants with the objective of offering healthier food and beverage options for children.
There are now 31 participants in the program. They include: Au Bon Pain, Burger King, Wingstop, Burgerville, Blimpie, Boudin SF, Chevy's, Denny's, El Pollo Loco, Extreme Pita and Pizza Fusion. Click here to view the entire index.
In general, healthy and lighter foods are faring better than many other menu items, according to NPD Group.
Another growing influence on the industry is the rapid growth of Hispanic and Asian populations in the U.S., which will continue to drive demand for more ethnically diverse foods, including spicier flavors.
Additionally, the large Millennials and Boomers demographics will influence restaurant foods. Based on NPD Crest information, the younger age group will provide a boost to juice/specialty drinks, and more brands will continue to shift their marketing dollars toward this demographic, as its spending influence grows.
Previous NPD Group research concluded that foodservice operators are smart to offer greater menu variety to meet Millennials' interests.
"Millennials will overtake Baby Boomers as the most sought-after target for restaurateurs in the coming years," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. "This is the time to reach them to build their loyalty. It's important to understand that Millennials are not a one-size-fits-all generation and their needs and wants are varied."
The older Baby Boomer consumers are expected to contribute to the growing popularity of coffee, fish/seafood items and breakfast foods.
Other influential factors
The NPD Group listed additional factors predicted to heavily influence the restaurant industry this year, and in years to come, including:
"We're forecasting a continued slow recovery for the restaurant industry in 2012," Riggs said. "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."
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