Restaurant menu items from Arby's, Taco Bell, Carl's Jr.
Key drivers of restaurant traffic growth this year included a menu focus on meat with compelling barbecue, bacon and steak offerings from such restaurants as Arby’s, Carl’s Jr. and Taco Bell.

CHICAGO — Thanks to bacon, barbecue and breakfast, this year the restaurant industry recovered the traffic it lost during the recession, said The NPD Group. Total food service traffic grew 1% over last year to 61 billion visits, and traffic is expected to grow another 1% in 2016, NPD said.

Bonnie Riggs, NPD
Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD

“It has been a long, slow recovery, but the food service industry has recovered nearly all of the steep traffic losses incurred after the recession began in 2008,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD. “Q.S.R.s have and will continue to support the traffic gain, while casual-dining visits are forecast to hold steady and mid-scale to decline by 1%.”

Representing 79% of all food service visits, quick-service restaurants were the strongest performing segment this year. Fast-casual restaurants saw an 8% increase in visits, retail convenience stores posted 2% growth in traffic, and the Q.S.R. segment’s traffic rose 1% during the year.

Key drivers of restaurant traffic growth this year included a surge in spicy products featuring sriracha, ghost peppers or jalapeños, a menu focus on meat with compelling barbecue, bacon and steak offerings from such restaurants as Arby’s, Carl’s Jr., Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Applebee’s, and the proliferation of breakfast items at quick-service restaurants.

“All-day breakfast at McDonald’s and burgers for breakfast at Burger King both seemed to satisfy consumers’ needs,” NPD said.

McDonald's breakfast sandwich, hashbrown, coffee
McDonald's all-day breakfast has driven growth in food service.

Consumers aged 50 and older drove most of the industry traffic growth and are expected to continue to do so in the future, NPD said.

“With continued focus on consumers’ ever-changing wants and needs, the industry can alter the current forecast of minimal growth,” Ms. Riggs said. “After all, forecasts are not cast in stone; they are to be used as a guideline and something to work against.”

Looking ahead to 2016, more restaurant chains are expected to pounce on the trend of removing additives and offering more “wholesome and real” menu items, Ms. Riggs noted.

“Clean eaters tend to define clean eating by what isn’t in their food, such as chemicals, preservatives, pesticides, and additives,” Ms. Riggs said. “They are looking for removal of ‘artificial’ ingredients and want to see more locally sourced, house-made and vegetarian-based dishes on menus. This requires staying on top of this evolving trend as it will become even more important to consumers as their knowledge of clean eating increases.”

Additionally, menu innovation featuring unique flavors and ingredients may become even more crucial to boosting restaurant traffic and remaining competitive.

Jack in the Box Spicy Jalapeno Nacho Curly Fries
Spicy sauces appeared on several menu items this year, like Jack in the Box's Spicy Nacho Curly Fries.

“This past year was filled with spicy sauces used on everything from burgers to chicken sandwiches and wings to pizza and fries,” Ms. Riggs said. “When you use hot, spicy sauces and stronger flavor profiles, an operator can influence consumers’ willingness to try menu items with these enhancements. 2016 will bring even more creativity to menu innovation, expanding into other unique sauces and ethnic cuisines.”

Fresh is becoming a bigger focus on menus, as consumers increasingly seek products prepared in-house with locally sourced ingredients. Also gaining traction are classic comfort dishes with a new twist.

“Some of the hottest chefs in America are taking these old favorites and infusing them with high-end, fresh ingredients,” Ms. Riggs said. “We anticipate seeing more innovation in this area in the coming year, in part, due to the nostalgic memories associated with these menu offerings.”

Finally, if all else fails, value prevails.

“Much to the chagrin of many restaurant operators, value wars are back,” Ms. Riggs said. “Many others will likely have to follow suit to compete in the battle for market share among value seekers, of which there are many.”