Local and organic produce remain atop the list of trends in the restaurant industry.

Hudson Riehle brought up produce and its role in healthier menu options during his state of the industry speech at the NASDAQ OMX Food & Restaurant Industry Forum June 10. Riehle is senior vice president of the research and knowledge group of the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.

Riehle echoed the association’s latest Restaurant Performance Index, which contained evidence the industry may be on its way back up.

Local and organic produce join nutritionally balanced kids’ dishes, bite-sized desserts, wraps, pitas and tortillas on the list of hot menu ingredients and options.

Riehle said sustainable practices are also making an impact. Half of fine-dining operations plan to be more “green,” Riehle said, and 45% of adults said they are likely to make a restaurant choice based on water and energy practices.

At the same time, consumers are looking for value, especially when deciding whether to eat out at a fullservice restaurant. The fullservice category has taken the hardest hit since the start of the economic downturn.

Riehle said restaurants can promote in certain ways to attract consumers.

“Three-fourths of consumers said they would patronize fullservice more often if they offered discounts for patronizing on less busy days,” Riehle said.

The ability to rapidly change prices depending on the day of the week, or even the time of day, will evolve, Riehle said.

Technology is also creating new opportunities in marketing and customer service, especially with younger consumers, Riehle said.

Social media

Following Riehle’s address were three industry panels, including “Marketing in a New World,” “Branding, Licensing & Growth” and “Business in the Current Economic Environment.”

Social mediums, including Facebook and Twitter, were hot topics when talking about new marketing in the restaurant industry. 

“First and foremost, this industry, more than any other, is really based on word-of-mouth, and that word-of-mouth now starts and ends online,” said Jake Fisher, director of media intelligence for Attention, a New York-based social media marketing and communications agency.

If Facebook were a country, it would be the seventh-largest, with 240 million people, Fisher said.

Both Facebook and Twitter have proven beneficial for attracting consumers, he said, but in different ways. Twitter is great for interacting with key people and people who do a lot of blogging, while Facebook is better for interacting between purchases, Fisher said.

Restaurants shouldn’t just jump on these sites without preparation, though.

“You have to have relevant content,” said Mike Amos, founder, president and chief executive officer of Empathica, a Mississauga, Ontario-based company devoted to measuring and managing consumer loyalty for multiunit retailers and foodservice operators.

“It’s not mass marketing anymore — it’s direct,” Amos said.

Panelists also agreed it’s important for individuals to represent companies on these social media Web sites in an integrated way, rather than the brand trying to speak for itself.

“I don’t want to see the brand tweeting, I want to see the person behind the brand tweeting,” said Adam Hirsch, chief operations officer for Mashable, a San Francisco-based social media guide with almost 800,000 followers on Twitter.

Be careful with discounts

Whether restaurants are staying afloat in this recession by reaching out over social media, or cutting back input costs with smaller portion sizes, or offering discounts and promotions, they have to be careful to stay true to their niche.

“The biggest factor going forward is differentiation,” said Larry Hattig, executive vice president and senior managing director Mesirow Financial Consulting, Chicago. “The 40-page menu that has everything … is not going to make people come to that destination. You can’t be all things to all people.”

It is more important than ever to attract and keep customers, not only because the industry is facing lower traffic rates, but also because when the economy picks up, restaurants want consumers coming back to their locations.

“We have to treat guests special and give them what they want. What a novel idea,” said Chris O’Donnell, chief executive officer of Famous Dave’s of America Inc., Minnetonka, Minn.