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Could it be a sign that food entrepreneurs are feeling more confident about the future? The results of the most recent restaurant census, conducted by The NPD Group, finds that the number of restaurant units increased 0.5 percent this past spring -- the first gain since 2009.

NPD’s Spring 2012 ReCount, a census of commercial restaurant locations in the United States compiled in the spring and fall of each year, reports that the number of independent restaurants posted a slight increase of 984 locations, bringing the total of independent restaurants to 320,193. Chain restaurant units were up by 1,888 units to 272,367.

The latest findings, which include restaurants open as of March 31, shows that most of the increase in units was in quick-serve restaurants. The unit count increased by 2,275 locations (for a total of 315,401) from the same period last year. Full-service restaurants, which include casual dining, mid-scale and fine dining restaurants, posted a 0.2 percent increase from the prior year.

More good news: Visits to U.S. restaurants rose 1 percent for the year ending May 2012, and consumer spending increased 2 percent, according to NPD’s CREST, which rigorously tracks the foodservice industry based on consumer reporting of over 400,000 visits to foodservice outlets a year.

“With improvement in restaurant visits and spending, restaurant operators, especially in the quick service segment, are more willing to invest in new locations,” says Greg Starzynski, director of product management, NPD Foodservice. “However, I expect them to take a more cautious approach to expansion than we saw earlier in the past decade. This is particularly true of the full-service segment, since expansion costs are significantly higher and traffic and spending gains have not been as strong in this segment.”

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