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What Happened to the Restaurant Recovery?
CNBC.com | May 11, 2011 | 02:24 PM EDT

The table was set for a recovery in restaurant sales; then something happened, it didn't materialize.

The economy was improving, and families started to eat out more often , which is usually an early sign of the industry's turnaround. After several years of tightening belts, it appeared consumers would start eating out more frequently.

But a double-whammy of high gasoline prices and rising food costs polarized consumers.

Recent research from NPD Group suggests consumers are of two different mindsets when it comes to spending—those who cannot spend freely and those who can—and the dichotomy between these two attitudes is going to have far-reaching implications for the restaurant industry for the next few years.

The vast majority of Americans, some 76 percent, fall into the more cautious camp, and as a result they are controlling their spending. Although this group cuts across all income levels, as you might imagine it is heavily skewed to the unemployed, less affluent and retirees.

Right now, these consumers are eating out less often, trading down to less expensive restaurants and ordering fewer items while they are there. They expect they will be less restrictive with their restaurant visits when the economy recovers, but they don't expect that to happen anytime soon.

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