Lenders and institutional investors are rushing into the restaurant space seeing a more upbeat outlook for 2014.

The resulting availability of “cheap money,” as well as whether and how restaurant companies might take advantage of it, was an ongoing theme at the 24th annual Restaurant Finance & Development Conference, which wrapped up Wednesday at the Wynn Las Vegas.

Lenders interested in working with restaurants were few and far between just a few years ago, but their number has increased dramatically — now including a variety of sources, from regional banks to subsidiaries of foreign banks and institutional investors. As a result, financing opportunities have become plentiful, said attendees and panelists at the three-day conference, which gathers members of the financial community and restaurant operators from across the country.

“Lenders have a lot of money to put to work,” said Bob Bielinski, managing director of financial management and investment banking firm the CIT Group Inc., based in Chicago.

Capital is available for acquisitions, remodeling or development for brands of a sufficient size — though what size that might mean depends on the brand and the lender, he said. Competition between such lenders has also resulted in more favorable terms for borrowers.

However, “just because you can borrow it doesn’t mean you should borrow it,” warned Bielinski. “Borrowers have to be responsible for their own balance sheet and capital structure.”

For the most part, those in the financial community appeared bullish about 2014, saying the choke hold on consumer discretionary income is likely to ease somewhat, though the gap between the haves and have-nots is expected to widen.

This year’s soft sales in casual dining are expected to improve, especially for brands that focus on food quality and freshness, staying relevant with current trends. Still, most agreed that the fast-casual segment will remain the primary thief of market share, taking guests from both their casual-dining and quick-service brethren.

The biggest challenge for restaurants this year has been the dwindling disposable personal income, or DPI, for consumers, said Michael Kelter, lead restaurants analyst on Goldman Sachs Group Global Investment Research team. DPI typically grows by $400 billion to $500 billion each year, but in 2013 it was estimated to grow by only about $225 billion, he said.

The payroll tax increase earlier in 2013 took about $700 per household on average out of consumers’ pockets, which depressed DPI growth. In a recent Goldman Sachs survey, 42 percent of consumers said they curbed their spending as a result.