(July 21) MONTEREY, Calif. — The National Restaurant Association expects its industry to top $511 billion in sales this year, and the produce business stands to be a beneficiary of that growth.

The association’s 2006 report estimates that 130 million people will visit a record 925,000 restaurants on an average day in the U.S. Every $1 spent in those restaurants generates another $2.34 for related industries, including produce. The restaurant industry’s economic impact will be more than $1.3 trillion if the association’s forecast is on target.

At the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Conference and Exposition July 15, Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the Washington, D.C.-based restaurant association, said the industry continues to see steady growth despite economic concerns, including rising fuel costs.

How should produce companies react to that shift? Riehle said convenience is critical, and the demand for fresh-cut produce likely will increase.

“Because of the challenge of recruitment and retention, anything that pushes labor back down the supply chain is a very important development for operators,” he said.

Another area of growth, Riehle said, is organics. According to the restaurant association, 48% of fine dining establishments and 39% of casual dining restaurants reported an increase in demand for organics.

Both categories also reported increased demand of more than 28% for fruits, vegetables and salads.

Mark Erickson, vice president for continuing education at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., said during a panel discussion that putting healthful options on the menu wasn’t enough.

“If we don’t really try to make healthy options taste good, we haven’t fulfilled our mission,” he said. “Having steamed broccoli isn’t good enough. It has to taste good.”

David Parsley, senior vice president of supply chain management for Applebee’s International, Overland Park, Kan., said the company had added new salads to its menu as well as Weight Watchers-branded items. Applebee's has promoted the healthy choices, he said, but waiters can’t force patrons to order them.

“People vote with their dollars,” he said. “We spend $140 million on TV advertising, but only a small percentage of people order what is advertised. It’s ultimately about personal responsibility.”