The USA's 945,000 restaurants are a major hunk of business for the poultry industry, with American consumers spending 48 percent of their food budget on food away from home. Restaurant industry sales, says the National Restaurant Association, are expected to reach a record $558 billion in 2008 a 4.4 percent increase over 2007 sales. Restaurants also spark new food trends, with seven out 10 people saying restaurants provide flavor and taste sensations that can't be easily duplicated at home. So, the just-released 2008 Restaurant Industry Forecast is must-reading for industry marketers.

"Dining out is not reserved for special occasions anymore, but plays an essential role in how we live our lives every day," said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the association. "Consumers want help to fit quality meals into their busy schedules, and require a lot of variety when doing so. They expect restaurants to make available a variety of healthful options and exciting flavors on menus, and they want to place their orders quickly and easily whether dining in the restaurant, enjoying at home, or eating-on-the-go. In addition, restaurant-goers want to be in control of their experiences from customizing menu items to fit their preferred tastes and diets, to using self-activated ordering and payment systems to get the most out of each restaurant occasion."

Poultry marketers should check their product mix against the following trends that will be showing up in restaurant menus in 2008:

Small is big on restaurant menus, as bite-size desserts and small plates/tapas/mezze top the list of hot trends when it comes to courses, according to the association's survey of more than 1,000 professional chefs. This restaurant trend continues to gain steam and has led some to even question, Is the entrée headed for extinction?' The New York Times recently quoted food author Colleen Rush: "The big, gut-busting entrees don't give diners that sense of risk-free adventure and experience." Consumers are seeking to customize their dining experience, and small bite-sized portions allow for more variety and options in a single meal.

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Alternative-source ingredients (locally grown produce, organics, sustainable seafood, grass-fed and free-range items) and ethnic cuisines, flavors and ingredients are other trends noted in the research. This is part of the trend away from processed foods towards fresh and includes the notion of "authentic eating."

In quick service restaurants, wraps/pitas/tortillas are high on the list of foods gaining in consumption, and entree salads, chicken sandwiches and breakfast sandwiches also are on the rise.

Going green is a broader trend impacting menus in restaurants. So far, most environmental efforts there are taking place in the kitchen through water- and energy-saving equipment, but supplies and packaging made of recycled or alternative materials are also showing up. A smaller number of restaurants are expressing an eco-commitment on their menus with organics, and sustainable seafood and meats; however, the current supply of such products is limited. Consumers are noticing these offerings, with more than six out of 10 (62 percent) saying they are inclined to patronize a restaurant based on how environmentally responsible it is.

These are just a few of the findings in the National Restaurant Association's 2008 Restaurant Industry Forecast. For more, visit www.restaurant.org/forecast.