Restaurant optimism fueled by continued employment growth, technology advancements and expanded consumer use of restaurant apps, off-premises and loyalty programs
Restaurants sales are forecast to exceed $1.1 trillion in sales 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 all according to the National Restaurant Association 2024 State of the Restaurant Industry Report.
Key findings from this year’s report include:
Operators and Consumers Alike See Value in Technology and Special Deals and Promotions
Consumers’ affinity for technology in restaurants varies and as a result, operators are strategically deciding how to incorporate technology into the experience. For fullservice restaurants, nearly half (46 percent) of adults think technology has a positive impact, and this number weighs heavily towards younger consumers (64 percent of Gen Z and 66 percent of Millennials). Similarly, this group is more likely to want more technology options according to the research.
These preferences can help operators make informed decisions on 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 make an investment in 2024. The areas where consumers say technology would have the most positive impact on their personal experience include options that make ordering and paying easier and faster.
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.
To further fuel customer retention, the data suggests focusing on loyalty and rewards programs. Customers prefer to see this type of program on a smartphone app, further enforcing the need for technological innovation and creating additional touchpoints between customers and restaurants.
Restaurant 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 per year on average, with total staffing levels reaching 16.9 million by 2032.
Despite this expansion, 45 percent of operators say their restaurant doesn’t have enough 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 the use of 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 on a more frequent basis, it’s often the result of increased food costs. In the past year, operators report needing to find new suppliers, removing items from their menus, adjusting portion sizes or substituting lower cost items all in response to elevated food prices. The availability of food items impacted menu composition as well, with more than three quarters (77 percent) of operators saying their restaurant experienced supply delays or shortages of key food or beverage items in 2023. These changes will present a challenge for operators, especially with most adults (86 percent) saying they like ample choices on menus.
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 will need to be strategic in how they balance thoughtfully streamlined, food-cost-effective menus and enough variety to satisfy demand and lead the latest trends.
For those offering it, off-premises remains a key area of opportunity, and customers agree, with a vast majority (88 percent) reporting being satisfied with the variety of local food options for takeout and delivery. Customers are viewing take-out in new ways, with two thirds (67 percent) of adults saying they’d be interested in subscriptions that offer 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 an 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.”
The 2024 State of the Restaurant Industry report is free to Wisconsin Restaurant Association restaurateur members ($349 for non-members). WRA members wishing to access the report, need to log into the National Restaurant Association Store before downloading the report. There’s a login link in the bar at the top. If you experience difficulties accessing the report for free, email Membership@Restaurant.org to request to be linked to your company's membership record.