The restaurant industry is warming up and local food will stay hot in 2011.

The 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast, released by the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association Feb. 1, projected sales of $604.2 billion this year, 3.6% higher than 2010.

Meanwhile, the NRA forecast said 69% of adults say they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food items.

The NRA report said the top full-service restaurant trends for 2011 include locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce, sustainability, nutritionally balanced children’s dishes and hyper-local (restaurant gardens).

Meanwhile, the top foodservice produce for 2011 include locally grown produce, organic produce, super fruits, heirloom beans and exotic fruit.

Looking better

An improving economy and pent up demand from many consumers will translate to a better year for restaurants and other foodservice outlets in 2011, the NRA report said.

2011 should see the first real growth in restaurant sales in four years, the forecast said. With inflation adjusted growth of 1.1% predicted. The restaurant industry accounts for nearly half of the consumer’s food dollar, up from 25% in 1955.

Hudson Riehle, Senior Vice President of the Research and Knowledge Group of the NRA said restaurant sales are correlated to consumer confidence. That confidence — though battered by high unemployment — has grown in the past eight months. “The trend is positive and the momentum is gathering,” he said.

Still, because many consumers are financially stressed, value will continue to be an important theme for restaurants in 2011.

Local angles

Local food remains a very hot button issue for restaurants, Riehle said. “You are going to see a lot more communication and menu offerings regarding local sourcing,” he said.

One challenge for operators will be higher wholesale costs for food, expected to increase 3.3% this year following last year’s 4.9% jump, Riehle said.

“These continued increase in wholesale food prices will put pressure on operator margins this year,” he said.

Marketing moves to Web

Riehle said one of the most dramatic trends in the restaurant business is the use of the Web by consumers to engage with restaurants. For example, 58% of consumers in 2010 said they look at restaurant menus online, up from 31% in 2005. Likewise, 27% of consumers said they make reservations for dining online in 2010, up from 10% in 2005.

“There is greater focus and resources allocated toward how menus are presented online and also the story behind a lot of the menu items,” he said.

Social media is also much more important to the restaurant industry, he said.

“Social media users are much more likely to dine out at table service restaurants, use quick service and more likely to regard restaurants as an essential part of their lifestyle.”

Social media users are more likely to use electronic ordering, pay at the table systems, ordering online and using smart phone apps and connecting with restaurants at social media sites such as Facebook. Statistics also indicate greater public acceptance of the use of email and text messages to advertise specials.

Riehle said eight out of ten restaurant operators believe social media is becoming a more important marketing tool.