WASHINGTON – Rachael Wright had culinary training, a bachelors degree in nutrition and a dream of putting her education to work. After a couple of years waiting tables and trying to launch her career, Wright finally went where the jobs are: quick-service food.
In September, she started at Protein Bar, a Chicago-based eatery specializing in low-sugar, high-fiber menus. The company says it seeks to marry fresh ingredients with convenience: Food is served in easy-to-carry bowls so customers can nosh while they walk. After multiple interviews, Wright landed an assistant manager job at the companys new store in Washington.
I was looking for something in product development, said Wright, 26. Even if that doesnt happen, having this background in the healthful food industry should help me along the right path instead of going from restaurant to restaurant.
Led by a led by a proliferation of fast-food and quick-service outlets, restaurants and bars are heading toward their strongest year of job growth since 2004, according to the National Restaurant Association. Food services accounted for nearly 30 percent of the 96,000 jobs created in August, which also marked 19 consecutive months of growth for the sector, according to the Labor Department.
The industry this year expanded payrolls by 2.9 percent as of the end of August, more than double the 1.4 percent increase in total U.S. employment, according to Labor Department data.
Chains including Wendys, Starbucks and a newer crop of eateries like Protein Bar and Nandos Peri-Peri, which offer made-to-order meals, are leading the growth.
Such outlets are flourishing even as total restaurant traffic remains stuck below pre-recession levels. Americans stepped out to eat 61 billion times in the 12 months ending July 31, down from 62 billion visits four years ago, according to market researcher NPD Group.
At the same time, 2,872 new restaurants have opened in the 12 months ending March 31, a 0.5 percent gain over the prior year and the first improvement since 2009.
While the industry faces challenges next year from rising gasoline and food prices, quick-service restaurants, known as QSRs, for now are profiting from weak job gains and stagnant wages, which are sending people in search of inexpensive meals.
Overall, the markets relatively flat, NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said. There are segments that are doing well. A lot of that growth is coming within the fast-casual segment and QSR.
The Bloomberg U.S. Quick Service Restaurant Index – made up of nine companies including Wendys and Jack in the Box Inc. – has risen 4.5 percent so far this year, compared with a 15 percent gain for the Standard & Poors 500 Index.
Nandos Peri-Peri arrived in the U.S. as the economic storm was bearing down in 2008. The restaurant combined a wide-ranging menu – spicy chicken, sangria, fresh salads and desserts – with limited service that required no tip and therefore was easier on customers wallets.
Some of it is a trend in the industry as much as it is a part of the economy, said Burton Heiss, CEO of Nandos Restaurant Group Inc. Its a natural way of saying were going to go out, but were going to be a little more wary of the checkbook.
Washington-based Nandos, part of a global brand with stores in more than 30 countries, will add three U.S. locations to its existing eight in the Washington area this year, hiring about 100.
Other operators are hiring as they restore customer service that fell victim to recession-era cost reductions.
Theyve all been through the period where they cut too much labor, said Malcolm Knapp, a New York-based consultant. The quality suffered, the experience suffered. Now, he said, in addition to opening new locations, theyre also trying to make sure they serve their guests.