(Dec. 17) Despite rising costs and a shaky economy, the National Restaurant Association is projecting solid growth for its members in 2008.

Dawn Sweeney, president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based association said the industry can expect its 17th consecutive year of real sales growth in 2008. She said during a Dec. 12 conference call that sales are expected to reach $558 billion, a 4.4% increase over 2007.

“It’s a testament to the essential role our industry plays in consumers’ lives,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research.

Riehle said the total economic impact of the restaurant industry on the U.S. economy will be an estimated $1.5 trillion. The association estimates U.S. consumers will spend 48% of their food dollars in restaurants next year. That’s up from 25% in 1955.

“Time will show that consumers are going to continue to allocate more spending to away-from-home markets,” he said.

While the country’s 945,000 restaurants are generating billions of dollars in sales, they also are dealing with increased costs. Riehle said the 7.3% increase in wholesale food prices was the highest spike in 27 years. Consequently, menu prices are expected to jump 3.6%, the fifth consecutive year that inflation has been 3% or more.

Food safety is another key issue.

In an association survey, members ranked food safety as their biggest budgetary concern with 40% saying they planned to increase their budget for food safety.

The NRA also recently released its hot list, in which it surveyed 1,282 members of the American Culinary Federation about 194 food items and asked participants to list things as hot, out of style or perennial favorites.

Locally grown produce and organic produce ranked second and third, respectively, behind bite-size desserts. Asian salads and pomegranates also cracked the overall top 20 at Nos. 15 and 16 respectively.

In individual categories, microvegetables (greens, zucchini and cucumbers), chili peppers and exotic mushrooms rounded out the top five vegetables behind locally grown and organic produce. Dragon fruit followed pomegranates in the fruit category, followed by figs, passion fruit and prickly pear.

The NRA reported 76% of adults and 73% of teenagers surveyed said they are trying to eat more healthy food when dining out than they did two years ago.

Furthermore, 87% of adults said there are more healthy options available at table service restaurants than there were two years ago, while 83% said options had improved at quick-service restaurants.

Riehle said healthy options are vital tools operators can use to differentiate themselves from the competition.

“The restaurant industry has always been and will always be consumer-driven,” he said. “This is a trend. This is not a fad that’s going to disappear.”