Why No One's In the Kitchen With Dinah

Consumers' appetite for greater convenience and more time has put restaurants in a prime-rib position.

The restaurant industry is projected to hit an all-time sales high of $320 billion in 1997, reflecting steady growth, says the National Restaurant Association, a trade group based in Washington.

Full-service restaurants are expected to post sales of $104 billion and fast-food restaurants $103 billion - more than 4 percent increases over last year. (Institutional eateries account for the other chunk.) Menu prices are expected to rise 2.7 percent, less than inflation.

"Eating out isn't just for special occasions anymore," says W.W. "Biff" Naylor, chairman of the National Restaurant Association. "Restaurants help feed the kids before soccer practice, give working couples a nice meal after a long day, and allow families to spend more time together."

Mr. Naylor's group recently released the 1997 Restaurant Industry Forecast, which offers insight into consumer demand when it comes to grumbling tummies.

Findings support other lifestyle-attitude polls in that more than one-third of Americans say they buy more carry out food today than they did two years ago. Some 40 percent of consumers surveyed say meals prepared away from home are "essential" to their lives.

Baby boomers are turning 50, which is "good news" for the industry, according to association officials, because people in their peak earning years tend to be the biggest spenders. The baby-boomer "echo" - children aged 5 to 15 - is seen to be an important group, because they not only influence their parents' dining decisions, but also form a future customer base.

The report cites three reasons why people eat out: social pleasure or family togetherness, eating pleasure, and convenience - known in the 90s as "lifestyle support."

Increasingly, diners are drawn to eateries that include entertainment, marking an "eatertainment" trend. So it follows that theme restaurants, with ambiance and dcor hinting at pop culture or travel, for example, will continue to do well. Consumers can now dine in a tropical rainforest, hear the music of Motown, get a view of the high-fashion world, revel in sports memorabilia or experience the thrill of being in a submarine, the report notes.

Other highlights include:

*Asian and pizza restaurants were most often named as being frequented to satisfy a craving.

*Two-thirds of adults report they could not duplicate their favorite restaurant foods at home.

*Restaurant operators report an increased emphasis on training, including food safety.

*What will be hot? Chefs surveyed said they expect Pan-Asian, Mediterranean, and Central and South American cuisines to be popular. Alternative red meats, such as ostrich, will show up on menus more frequently, as will exotic mushrooms, specialty greens, tropical fruit, organic produce, and flatbreads. Also expect to see more grilled, slow-roasted, and smoked foods.

*Other foods that will continue to be popular, say chefs, include goat cheese, couscous, pasta, risotto, hot peppers, and vegetarian dishes.

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