By Lisa Baertlein
LOS ANGELES, Jan 15 (Reuters) - U.S. restaurant industry sales are projected to exceed $683 billion in 2014, an increase of 3.6 percent from last year, according to a forecast released late on Wednesday by the National Restaurant Association.
The projected rise would mark an improvement from the recession-battered years of 2008 and 2009, but it would lag the industry's boom years in the 1970s - when double-digit annual percentage sales growth rates were not uncommon.
Menu price inflation - resulting from operators' efforts to offset higher costs for everything from beef to labor - are expected to account for 2.4 percent of the sales growth in 2014, Hudson Riehle, the NRA's senior vice president of research and knowledge, told Reuters in an interview.
Higher food and labor costs are expected to pressure profits again this year. Costs for popular items like beef are trending higher and operators are also grappling with minimum wage increases and costs related to implementing the new U.S. healthcare law.
The restaurant industry will again be the nation's second-largest private employer with a workforce of 13.5 million, or about 10 percent of the U.S. total, according to the NRA.