(Jan. 2) Eating out has never been more in, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The Washington, D.C.-based NRA’s 2007 Restaurant Industry Forecast, released Dec. 26, predicts that restaurant sales could reach a record $537 billion in 2007, up 5% from 2006. Among the trends: Quick-serve operators will aim to include “good for you” items on their menus, and nearly eight of 10 chefs consider organic and locally grown as hot menu items for 2007.

“The big picture is that foodservice growth has exceeded retail growth for fresh produce,” said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. Silbermann said he expects foodservice demand to continue climbing.

In response, he said PMA is investing more resources and program focus on foodservice operators. He credited foodservice demand with helping to spur an emphasis on taste by fresh produce marketers.

The NRA survey showed that among restaurants that now serve organic items, 52% of fine dining, 42% of casual dining and 27% of family dining restaurants operators expect higher sales of those items in 2007. Locally grown produce is expected to show sales increases of 51% for fine dining, 31% of casual dining and 31% of family dining operators.

Silbermann said that the strong trends for organic and locally grown produce point to the fresh and nutritious image of produce.

He also noted that greenhouse facilities throughout the country may also serve an increasing role in supplying foodservice demand.

“Greenhouses are a way of increasing local and regional production,” he said.

NRA spokeswoman Sue Hensley said the group uses both its own surveys and state data to produce the forecast. The 2006 forecast of $500 billion was understated by about $10 billion, statistics show.

The NRA estimates Americans spend about 47.9% of their food budget in restaurants, and spending at restaurants will enter its 16th consecutive year of real growth in 2007.

The number of U.S. restaurants is projected to grow by 10,000 to 935,000 sites in 2007, while the number of employees is forecast to increase from 12.5 million to 12.8 million, Hensley said.