Locals crowned their state as such years ago. But now, people from all over the country and world are catching up. Tourists are flocking to Arizona to see what the buzz is about and they are greeted with open arms and menus from nearly 9,000 restaurants.

Thanks to the residents of Arizona and the tourists who vacation here, our state is slated to see a 4.9 percent increase in restaurant sales in 2014, which gives Arizona the nation’s biggest increase. This impressive growth will put the 2014 restaurant industry income for Arizona at $11 billion, the equivalent economic impact of hosting two Super Bowls a month.

The growing restaurant industry also brings a tremendous number of jobs to Arizona. Currently, the restaurants of Arizona employ 265,000 people, representing 11 percent of our state’s labor market. These numbers are expected to continue to grow over the next nine years. By 2023, it is projected that there will be nearly 42,000 new jobs in the restaurant industry.

Steve Chucri
Steve Chucri
Kimberly Lanning
Lucia Schnitzer Headshot
Lucia Schnitzer
Carolyn Vangelos Headshot
Carolyn Vangelos

With their sights set on a continually growing restaurant industry, restaurants in Arizona have been working hard to bring diners the eating experience they desire. For some, that may be the neighborhood local eatery. For others, that may be the chain restaurant they are familiar with. “They both have their place,” said Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant Association. Local restaurants and chain restaurants offer different things to consumers, making the growth in both types of restaurants strong in Arizona. “Phoenix is a hub to test chain restaurants,” said Lucia Schnitzer, owner Luci’s Healthy Marketplace, a neighborhood favorite in Phoenix. Schnitzer said she doesn’t see chain restaurants as competition. A Dunkin’ Donuts is scheduled to open across the street from her eatery and Schnitzer sees it as a sign of her business’s success. “It’s a real compliment when I see a chain restaurant want to build next to mine,” she said.

Every item in Luci’s Healthy Marketplace has been handpicked by Lucia herself, which allows her to accommodate a variety of diners: vegans, gluten-intolerants and lactose-intolerants are among many special-diet diners which are becoming a large part of the dining population today. Kimber Lanning, founder and director of Local First Arizona, believes that there are two different types of consumers — “people who don’t think much about what they eat” and people who are more conscious of the food they are consuming. “More and more people who used to not think so much about food are now starting to catch on,” Lanning said. And restaurant owners have caught on to this consumer awareness as well. Both local and chain restaurant owners pay close attention to changing food trends and work to incorporate these trends into their menu. For the past few years, the National Restaurant Association’s annual report on current food trends has seen spots No. 1 and 2 go to locally sourced produce and meats. “This is a trend that has taken hold without question,” said Chucri. People are curious about where their food is coming from and they are also looking to support locals, even when dining at a non-local restaurant. Carolyn Vangelos, a franchisee of Dallas-based Twin Peaks restaurant,

said that offering local beer is a big factor in the draw of people to her Camelback Twin Peaks. However, Vangelos goes further and makes it a point to use local produce company Stern whenever possible. Vangelos recognizes the importance and popularity of local food not only to her customers, but also feels it herself. “Some of my favorite restaurants are local restaurants,” she said. And the same can be said for the majority of people today. This is reflected in the increasing number of independent restaurants in today’s economy. Chucri estimated that 65 percent of food establishments in Arizona are independent and 35 percent are chain restaurants.

The economic impact and significance of that independent restaurant majority is easy to see.
“It helps our economy and we are able to cycle revenues back into the economy,” said Schnitzer.
A study done by Local First Utah showed that eating at a local restaurant produces more than twice the economic impact of dining at a chain restaurant. However, Lanning feels that for Arizona, “it is more – three times more.” Not only are independent restaurants here using local foods, they are also using local interior designers, local web designers and a variety of other local services that allows a much larger portion of the money coming from those restaurants to remain in Arizona’s pocket.
However, because of the variety in consumers’ desired dining experiences, chain restaurants are also vital to Arizona’s economy, as evidenced by the growing number of each.
“Both independent and chain restaurants are expanding, not just by location but by their cuisine types as well,” said Chucri. “If you add that together, that is the secret to Arizona’s expanding restaurant economy.”
Throw in some highly regarded awards, and you have the recipe for success. Our state is home to a number of James Beard Award-winning chefs who are offering dining experiences only available here in the Grand Canyon State. Coupled with national award-winning wineries, Arizona has become a destination for food.
For both independent and chain restaurants, Arizona is the ideal place to be and the food culture is thriving here. With the numbers projected for our state in 2014, there is no denying that, as Lanning said, “Arizona is poised to do amazing things.”