Restaurant growth trend includes Wichita

02/24/2012 12:00 AM

02/24/2012 9:41 AM

Nearly every year is a good year for restaurants in Wichita.

Even in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, when local restaurateurs expected that dining out would take an economic hit along with everything else, people kept eating out, said Adam Mills, president and CEO of the Wichita-based Kansas Restaurant & Hospitality Association.

This year, Wichita’s restaurant scene is benefiting from a nationwide restaurant growth trend. “Fast-casual” restaurants, where customers order higher-quality food at the counter (think Chipotle and Panera), are particularly poised for success, both locally and nationwide, Mills said.

In addition, 2012 will bring the openings of several anticipated restaurants, including the arrivals of popular chains such as Chick-fil-A and BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, the addition of several homegrown barbecue, Asian and pizza restaurants, and continued growth for several Wichita-bred chains, including Spangles and Freddy’s Frozen Custard.

“Things are just good here,” said Mills, who’s worked for the association since 2002 and was promoted to president earlier this year. “It’s good to be around this industry right now.”

Restaurant sales have remained strong and continue to grow nationwide, Mills said, noting that 50 percent of the food dollar in the United States is spent in restaurants. Kansas restaurants support that trend. And the state’s hospitality industry employs 126,400 people, he said, making it the largest private sector employer in Kansas.

Eating out is perhaps Wichita’s most popular form of entertainment, Mills said.

It’s generally inexpensive, he said, and these days, families on the go won’t spend much more eating a meal out than they would preparing it at home.

Scott Redler, one of the owners of the fast-growing Freddy’s Frozen Custard chain, also feels optimistic about the dining-out scene, both locally and beyond.

In the 10 years since he opened the first Freddy’s at the corner of 21st and Tyler in Wichita, he’s opened 60 Freddy’s nationwide. In 2012, that number should grow by 30.

He and Mills both say that the fast-casual concept, which includes Freddy’s, will grow the most this year.

“The guests want great food, but they’re still going to be very value conscious,” Redler said. “The best value out there is quick casual, where people are ordering from a counter, they don’t have to tip, and it’s full-service quality food.”

“Nationally, everyone is predicting a good, solid restaurant year – better than it’s been in years past,” Redler said. “I expect Wichita to have a good year this year, too.”

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