Utahns are expected to chow down away from home a lot next year, according to a national forecast released this week.

The state is ranked third in the nation in projected restaurant sales growth in 2008, according to the National Restaurant Association. Utah also is expected to have the fifth-best restaurant job growth by the year 2018.

Nationwide, industry sales are expected to rise by 4.4 percent next year, which equates to a 0.9 real, or percent inflation-adjusted, growth.

Nevada is forecast to lead the pack, with a rate of 6.5 percent, followed by Arizona's 6.4 percent and Utah's 5.9 percent. The association said Utah's 2008 sales should be $3 billion.

That would continue a 17-year rise in real sales growth in the industry, which has been helped by growth in local economies, disposable income and population. Restaurants are expected to have sales of $558 billion, a total economic impact of more than $1.5 trillion and total employment of 13.1 million at 945,000 sites in 2008, according to the forecast.

"Restaurants are firmly rooted as an essential part of Americans' lifestyle, and the restaurant and food-service industry will show a respectable 4.4 percent sales growth in 2008, despite the challenging overall economic climate," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of Research and Information Services for the association. "On the state level, the strongest growth will again be seen in the western and southern states, with Nevada leading sales growth and Arizona leading job growth."

Dawn Sweeney, the association's president and chief executive officer, noted that consumers are spending 48 percent of their food budgets in restaurants.

The states with the smallest projected sales growth next year are Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

States with the highest restaurant sales volume are expected to be California, where sales are expected to hit $56.4 billion, followed by Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois. California likewise will have the most restaurant employees — nearly 1.5 million — in 2008. Second-ranked Texas will have fewer than 1 million.

The number of restaurants in the United States is expected to increase to 945,000 in 2008, and the industry is expected to add 2 million jobs over the next decade. Arizona will add the most, at a 26.9 percent rate. Utah's fifth-place ranking is pegged at 22.5 percent.

Details about the forecast are available at www.restaurant.org/forecast.

E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com