Think about the celebration that occurred after Arizona was awarded the 2015 Super Bowl.
Much of that excitement came because of the economic impact the Super Bowl will have on the state. But the restaurant industry in Arizona generates revenue equivalent to hosting two Super Bowls a month.
“Restaurants are critical to Arizona’s visitor industry – and vice versa,” said Debbie Johnson, president and CEO of the Arizona Lodging & Tourism Association. “Arizona attracts more than 37 million visitors annually and dining is the No. 1 activity for those visitors. So the success of the two industries are definitely intertwined.”
Arizona’s restaurant industry, which included 8,885 eating and drinking places of business in 2011, is expected to rake in $10.5 billion in sales this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. Arizona’s restaurants also employ 262,200 people, roughly 10 percent of the state’s workforce. That number is projected to grow 15.9 percent by 2023 to 303,800 – translating into 41,600 new jobs in the industry.
“While the Recession claimed 500 Arizona restaurants, the industry that was born out of the recession was stronger and more resilient,” said Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association. “From 2007 on, Arizona’s industry sales have grown from $7.9 billion to $10.1 billion (in 2012) with extremely modest growth in the hungrier years of 2008-2010.”
Chucri said Arizona’s rate of restaurant sales growth, while once the top in the nation at 6.2 percent, is starting to fight its way back, growing at a little more than 3 percent each year, boosting this industry’s sales by an estimated $400 million annually.
“I think the restaurant community has stabilized and I sense an increasing confidence in the community,” said Steven Micheletti, CEO of Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill, which has five locations in Arizona and plans to add two more in the next year. “New restaurants are being built and being opened in interesting parts of the city. There is ongoing collaboration between great entrepreneurs happening, creating some great restaurant experiences. Operators are building restaurants in all types of buildings, creating really fun dining environments.”
A lot of the growth in Arizona’s restaurant industry is coming from entrepreneurs and chefs who are giving consumers different and unique dining experiences.
“Some of the strengths in Arizona’s restaurant industry include population growth, strong tourism, unmatched lifestyle and weather, and access to good produce,” said Russell Owens, president and COO of Fox Restaurant Concepts. “With all of these factors working together, there is more appeal for great chefs to come to Arizona to offer innovative new restaurants and fresh ideas. I think we are seeing more creativity today than over the last 20 years and this will positively shape the industry in Arizona for years to come.”
That influx of great chefs and innovative ideas has become an economic engine for the tourism industry.
“Scottsdale has seen a growth in chef-driven, independent restaurants, which are fueling our culinary scene,” said Rachel Pearson, vice president of community and government affairs for the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Not only do our resorts boast award-winning chefs and restaurants, but now you can drive to every corner of Scottsdale and find unique culinary experiences from well-known chefs.”
Not only are many of the new restaurants that are popping up utilizing fresh ideas and concepts, they are also beginning to increasingly rely on local produce and products to help serve their customers.
“Arizona visitors are really looking for a unique and distinct dining experience that they can’t get back home,” Johnson said. “So trends that we’re seeing in both hotel/resort restaurants as well as off-site restaurants include utilizing local ingredients and offering menu items and experiences that provide a taste of the local community.”
Micheletti has seen an increasing shift to supporting local farmers and growers, but the “Local First” trend doesn’t stop there.
“There’s also a growing influence of local crafted beers and wines,” he said. “Guests really are reading menus and asking questions about ingredients and sourcing. It’s not just about calories anymore.”
In addition to Arizona-grown ingredients, Chucri said one of the most transcendent trends he sees in the industry is the desire for healthy foods.
“The tendency towards more healthful items for the entire family illustrates that consumers are looking to restaurants for more than an indulgent special occasion meal,” he said. “Restaurants are becoming a part of consumers’ daily lives, an extension of their family. Whether it be a compliment dish for Easter dinner, a post-Little League party, or a got-home-too-late-to-cook family dinner, restaurants have infused themselves into the fabric of families everyday lives … a trend that is certain to stick around.”