WASHINGTON — About 50% of respondents in a survey of US restaurant operators in the full-service, quick-service and fast-casual segments said they expect recruiting and retaining employees to be their top challenge in 2022.

The survey was part of a 2022 state of the restaurant industry report released Feb. 1 by the National Restaurant Association. Online ordering for delivery and takeout should continue to increase in 2022, as should supply chain challenges, according to the report.

“Given emergent technology, changing consumer behavior and dining preferences, and the extraordinary challenges of the last two years, the industry is unlikely to ever completely return to its pre-pandemic state,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group at the Washington-based National Restaurant Association. “While recovery speed varies across the industry by segment, the constant innovation and sustained flexibility of restaurant operators are creating a new future for the restaurant industry. There will continue to be ample opportunities for growth in 2022 and beyond.”

The report was based on economic data and surveys of 3,000 US restaurant operators and 1,000 adult US consumers fielded in November and December 2021.

The report projects the US foodservice industry workforce to increase by 400,000 jobs and reach employment of 14.9 million by the end of 2022, which would compare to 14.5 million at the end of 2021. Most restaurant operators, however, expect labor challenges to continue throughout this year with 70% of them saying they currently do not have enough employees to support customer demand. Seventy-four percent said they plan to devote more resources to recruiting and retaining employees.

The report projects the US foodservice industry to average adding 200,000 jobs per year between 2023 and 2030 to reach 16.5 million.

More than half of restaurant operators said they expect it would be a full year or more before business conditions return to normal. They expect food, labor and occupancy costs to remain elevated and to impact restaurant profit margins in 2022.

Among the restaurant operators, 96% said they experienced supply delays or shortages of food or beverages items in 2021. They expect that situation to continue this year.

Online ordering and outdoor seating could become more popular in 2022.

More than 80% of the restaurant operators said using technology in a restaurant provides a competitive advantage. Among the US adults, 54% said purchasing takeout or delivery food is essential to the way they live. The percentages were higher for millennials at 72% and Gen Z at 66%. When asked about having the option to include alcohol with a takeout or delivery order, 70% of Gen Z and 62% of millennials said having that option would make them more likely to choose one restaurant over another similar restaurant.  

About half of the restaurant operators said they think the availability of seating on a sidewalk, parking lot or street will become more common this year. Almost 40% of the US adults said that availability would make them more likely to choose one restaurant over another similar one.

The report forecasts the US foodservice industry to reach $898 billion in sales in 2022. A 2021 mid-year report released by the NRA on Aug. 31 projected 2021 sales to reach $789 billion, a figure that would be up nearly 20% from 2020.