The restaurant industry is slowly recovering from the huge losses it suffered during the Great Recession. Operators aren’t expecting a rapid shift to big profits but analysts predict a nominal growth rate of about 3.5% at limited service restaurants this year. As a result, the sector will reach revenue of roughly $192.2 billion.

Part of the growth at limited-service restaurants can be linked to consumers who are still holding a tight rein on their eating out budgets. These operators have taken advantage of growth in traffic by introducing new menu items such as the chicken wraps with aioli sauce at McDonalds. Other operators are targeting diners who are looking for a new twist on old favorites. Technomic analysts say that about half of consumers are now eating a burger once a week. Two years ago, only 38% of consumers were eating burgers on a weekly basis.

“The value menu is certainly a big part of this increase in burger consumption,” says Sara Monnette, Director of Consumer Research at Technomic. But that’s not the whole story. Consumers have identified the burger as an affordable treat that can be turned into a highly specialized menu item.

Most quick-service establishments are now offering vegetarian burgers to satisfy younger consumers. At least 23% of 18-34 year olds want to see that option on the menu. In addition, consumers are increasingly aware of the quality of ingredients that make up beef burgers. As a result, nearly half of consumers are looking for meat that is steroid free. Technomic research also revealed that cheese is a favorite burger topping with most quick-service operators offering American while full service operators use cheddar.

Look for quick-service establishments to continue promoting new menu items as well as updated favorites in an attempt to hold onto the consumer traffic they’ve snagged since the start of the recession.

[Sources: Burger trend continues to sizzle. Technomic.com. 6 Jul. 2011. Web. 20 Jul. 2011; Shee, Jody. What Happened to Table Service. QSR Magazine.com. March 2011.Web. 21 Jul. 2011]