Thanks in part to menu items heavy on fresh-cut and value-added produce, restaurant sales are improving, but they have not yet returned to pre-recession levels, said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.

“There remains substantial pent-up demand to use restaurants among consumers,” Riehle said.

Three times a year, the association surveys consumers about whether they’re using restaurants as much as they would like.

In a September survey, 1 out of 2 American adults said they were not using restaurants as much as they would like.

“That is at a historically high level,” Riehle said.

The strength of the restaurant industry is related to the employment situation, he said.

That’s because those who are employed have time constraints and a need for convenience, so they tend to use foodservice more than the unemployed. Also, those who are employed have more income to spend on eating out.

Although the U.S. employment numbers have improved, “It still isn’t a robust employment situation,” he said.

On the bright side, 2013 was the fourth consecutive year of positive sales growth among restaurants, and sales showed “substantial improvement over the 2008-09 timeframe,” he said. However, the growth rate remains more modest than the decade prior to the onset of the recession.

“Sales continue to move ahead,” he said, “although the pace of the increase is not as robust as it has been historically.”

The association reported some good news for the produce industry.

Of the National Restaurant Association’s Top 10 Trends for 2014, locally grown produce ranked No. 2.

“Among the top-performing items, produce is front and center,” Riehle said.

Environmentally sustainable came in at No. 3, healthful kids’ meals was No. 4, hyper-local sourcing, like restaurant gardens, was No. 6, and farm/estate branded items was No. 10.

Riehle said he expects 2014 to be a year of continued sales increases for restaurants, but he added that, “It isn’t viewed as a year of economic breakout.”