Tech at the Table? What Restaurants Are Cooking up for 2014

By FOXBusiness

The appetite for dining out is growing in the U.S., with 2014 predicted to be another record year for restaurant sales.

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The annual forecast from the National Restaurant Association predicts that sales will grow for the fifth consecutive year in 2014, increasing 3.6% over 2013 to reach an estimated record high of $683 billion.

“There’s pent-up demand for restaurants,” says National Restaurant Association expert Hudson Riehle. “Two-fifths of consumers aren’t using restaurants as much as they’d like.”

Despite increased demand, however, there are challenges standing in the way of restaurant owners.

With one-third of all dollars earned going to labor costs, Riehle says mom-and-pop operators will feel the impact of minimum wage increases in various states and cities across the U.S. ObamaCare may also take a toll on restaurants with over 50 employees, with the employer mandate slated to kick in starting in 2015.

In order to combat these challenges and grow revenues, Riehle shares some of the top insights from the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 forecast that may help restaurant owners attract new diners.

No. 1: Keep costs down.

Riehle says today’s consumer is still sensitive to menu price increases, despite the improving economy. “Operators need to be extremely judicious in how and when they increase menu prices,” says Riehle.

No. 2: Go mobile.

The organization’s research shows that 63% of consumers are using restaurant-related technology; most commonly, diners are looking up restaurant locations and directions online. In order to take advantage of mobile searches, restaurant operators should invest in optimizing their websites for smartphones, says Riehle.

No. 3: Take advantage of social.

Riehle says social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can help maintain relationships with existing customers and attract new ones. “They allow operators to nudge consumers to patronize,” he says. The National Restaurant Association’s research finds that over a third of diners ages 18-34 view restaurants’ social media pages, making these sites especially important for attracting a younger clientele.

No. 4: Think local.

“Local sourcing is equated with freshness,” says Riehle, and locally sourced meat, seafood and produce top the list of table-service menu trends for 2014. Playing up local menu items or partnerships with neighborhood farms can help attract foodies this year, with 64% of adults more likely to visit restaurants that offer locally made items.

No. 5: Become health-conscious.

Healthful kids’ meals and gluten-free options are also among the top five trends for 2014, and over 80% of all restaurant operators say their customers are paying more attention to nutritional content than they were just two years ago. Given that nearly three-quarters of diners are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers healthy options, adding some new, good-for-you dishes may be a smart move for restaurant owners.

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