IT'S summer - and a number of fast-food restaurants are sizzling. Just about everyone knows that on a typical Friday or Saturday night about this time of the year, the local McDonald's is packed, as families flee overheated houses and apartments for free air-conditioning, a fairly inexpensive Big Mac or Fish Filet, and a soft drink and fries.
But McDonald's isn't alone as a gathering point for the summer exodus to the local fast-food hangout. Ask the folks at Shoney's, Sbarro (an Italian restaurant), Long John Silver's, or the local Sizzler steakhouse.
The overall outlook for the fast-food segment of the restaurant industry is promising, industry experts say, despite a pell-mell expansion last year in terms of new outlets around the United States. That growth in new fast-food units has created an overcapacity problem for some chains, as well as a decline in real sales per restaurant for the industry as a whole. But for many fast-food chains, the expectation is still modest-to-solid growth.
Sales for a number of chains were up in May from more dismal April figures, according to Leslie Steppel, an analyst with Prudential-Bache Securities. One reason: new products, such as McDonald's introduction of its ``Country-style McChicken.''
``Demand in the quick-service, limited-menu segment of the industry should continue to grow faster than overall industry demand,'' predicts Laurie Lively, an analyst with Oppenheimer & Co. Inc.
Ms. Lively notes that sales for the entire restaurant industry rose only about 2 percent last year. But sales for franchised fast-food restaurants increased 6.2 percent.
Americans are eating out more often, Lively says. The US Department of Commerce reports that sales at eating and drinking places have grown almost 3 percent annually during the last five years, reaching $157 billion last year. The market share of dollars spent on food eaten away from the home, moreover, has continued to swell - from 29 percent in the late 1970s, to 32 percent last year.