BOSTON (SHNS) – A major industry group projects that year-end restaurant sales across the country will total nearly 20 percent more in 2021 than in 2020, indicating continued recovery even as the Delta variant poses new threats and as establishments grapple with hiring challenges.

The National Restaurant Association’s Mid-Year State of the Restaurant Industry report, published Tuesday, projected $789 billion in food and beverage sales across the restaurant and food service industry in 2021, a 19.7 percent increase over last year’s pandemic-afflicted figure. Tom Bene, the National Restaurant Association’s president and CEO, said the group’s outlook for the rest of the year is “one of cautious optimism.”

“Faced with one of the most devastating and disruptive events of our lifetime, the restaurant industry has taken significant strides toward rebuilding over the first half of 2021,” Bene said.

Over the first seven months of the year, American eating and drinking establishments added a net 1.3 million jobs, the association found. While that total is a significant uptick, total employment in the sector remains nearly 1 million jobs or 8 percent below pre-pandemic levels, and three-quarters of restaurant operators surveyed by the industry group reported that recruiting employees was their top challenge in June.

The more infectious Delta strain continues to drive increasing case counts and rising hospitalizations across the country, and the National Restaurant Association said in its report that six in 10 adults changed their restaurant use in response to the variant. Patrons are also mostly in favor of some of the COVID-era changes restaurants deployed, the industry group found, with 84 percent of adults in favor of allowing restaurants to set up tables on sidewalks, streets or parking lots permanently and a majority supporting takeout and delivery alcohol sales.