INDEPENDENT RESTAURANTS GROWING FASTEST: NPD

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. -- This year, independent operators overtook their chain counterparts in unit growth for the restaurant industry, according to a survey by NPD Group, an international marketing information provider based here.The research indicated that restaurant growth as a whole was up 3%, though chain restaurants added only 1.5% to their totals from last year. Much of the expansion was credited

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. -- This year, independent operators overtook their chain counterparts in unit growth for the restaurant industry, according to a survey by NPD Group, an international marketing information provider based here.

The research indicated that restaurant growth as a whole was up 3%, though chain restaurants added only 1.5% to their totals from last year. Much of the expansion was credited to independent operators, who established 4% more restaurants than they did in 1997.

"The glory days of chain-restaurant unit expansion appear to be behind us," commented Bob O'Brien, president of NPD's Foodservice Information Group. "Quick-service chain operators [have] suffered declines in the average sales of stores open more than a year. Many attribute this decline to cannibalization from new units going up at a very healthy clip."

In recent years, chain-unit expansion dominated the industry, driving the number of total restaurant units in the United States up 16% between 1995 and 1997. This year's drastic slip in numbers was attributable in large part to the drop in growth in the quick-service segment.

Not only are independent restaurants outpacing chains in unit growth, but they also have gained unit share of the market for the first time in 10 years. Industry sales as a whole have grown faster than unit expansion for the first time since 1994, with operators reporting healthy summer sales gains for two years in a row.

"Our food choices are increasingly driven by the desire for convenience," said Harry Balzer, NPD vice president. "Restaurants are and will continue to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend."