Restaurant suppliers expect turnaround in business in 2012

December was a good month for restaurants. Industry-wide, sales were up five percent over the month before.

But will that trend last? At a hospitality trade show being held in Myrtle Beach this week, suppliers see their business on the upswing.

From air conditioners to waffle irons, if it has to do with the hospitality industry, you'll find it at the Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Supply Show of the Southeast. Like the industry itself, the show has struggled recently, but organizers say, this year is different.

"The last 3 or 4 years, the traffic was down. This year, we're up 100 booths and exhibits. We're growing back and we've got a fantastic attendance," said Myra Starnes of Leisure Time Unlimited, which has put on the trade show for 36 years.

Starnes said people attending this year's show are smiling more and seem to have a more relaxed body language. That could be because restaurant and hotel suppliers say their customers are buying again.

"Yesterday was probably the best first day we've had in a number of years and I've actually been coming to the show for 26 years," said Jeff Grun, a sales representative for the equipment manufacturer Electrolux.

Suppliers like Grun are happy, because every piece of equipment wears out after a while and restauranteurs are finding out that they just can't hold back on buying replacements.

"A lot of the hoteliers and restaurants have held off in purchasing new technology and new equipment because of the economy and so what we're seeing is a lot of renewed energy and excitement about, now is the time in which to take a look at our investment in the future," said Steve Rayborn, who was manning a booth for HoteleVision.

One restaurant supplier from Longs who's been in the business 39 years said 2010 was terrible, but it started turning around last year.

"I think we're going to definitely see improvement in 2012," said Carson Hardwick, owner of Hardwick's Restaurant Supplies.

Hardwick said it's more than just selling replacement equipment. His business is helped by new restaurants that are coming to the Grand Strand.

The National Restaurant Association says the South Atlantic region, which includes the Carolinas, posted the strongest sales growth in the nation last year.