(Jan. 26) With fruits and vegetables increasingly on the plate, consumers are putting their forks, knives and spoons into foodservice sales.

To the tune of about $1.4 billion per day, the restaurant industry will ring up record sales in 2006, according to a National Restaurant Association forecast released in January.

Total restaurant sales in 2006 will reach $511 billion, up 5.1% from last year and equal to about 4% of the U.S. gross national product.

The NRA, based in Washington, D.C., said restaurants will grab 47.5% of the average consumer’s food dollar, about double the 25% share of 1955.

On a typical day, 130 million people patronize U.S. restaurants in 925,000 locations.

“I’m not surprised to hear predictions for continued growth in foodservice because people enjoy eating out,” said Janet Erickson, the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association’s board chairman and executive vice president of purchasing and quality assurance for Del Taco Corp., Lake Forest, Calif.


Produce is expected to play a key role in industry growth, the report said.

Identified as one to the top 10 trends in the industry, healthy eating at restaurants is taking on more importance, according to the restaurant association.

Three out of four consumers say they try to eat healthier foods now when they eat out than they did two years ago.

At the same time, the NRA noted restaurants want to deliver “big taste” options that consumers can’t readily duplicate at home.

Growth in restaurant sales has accelerated in 2005 and into 2006, particularly for higher end salad items, said Mark Campion, vice president of foodservice sales for Salinas-based Taylor Farms of California.

Arugula, romaine blends and green leaf blends have increased, while iceberg lettuce has slipped somewhat, he said.

Campion said the efforts to add produce at quick-service restaurants helped to upgrade produce offered at higher-end operations.

“QSRs have made a push into the healthy menu options, and once they put out great looking salads and produce options, that made the casual and fine dining restaurants really step up,” he said.

In effect, Campion said the QSRs have had a trickle-up effect on foodservice trends.

“It’s a trend everybody has seen at McDonald’s and Wendy’s, and now there are more healthy options at QSRs,” Erickson said. She noted PMA is focusing its efforts on working with menu developers to encourage more produce items on menus.

One of the areas for growth of restaurant sales is in the realm of retail-host restaurants. In fact, the NRA projects growth for that category will equal 7.5% this year, well above the industry average.

One example of the retail host restaurants are dine-in areas found in supermarkets.

West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee Inc., a 221-store chain with stores in seven Midwest states, is one supermarket that has a history of offering a dining area in its stores.

“We were among the first grocery stores to go to dining areas during the 1960s,” said Ruth Comer, assistant vice president of communications for Hy-Vee.