The Recession Is Not Killing Restaurants

Three-course Valentine’s prix fixe dinner for 2: Bisque of Maine Lobster, Duck Confit Cassoulet, Muscat Poached Apricot Tart. The tab: $70 per person—or $100 if you want the optional wine pairings.

At these prices, it’s hard to believe there’s a recession on—but then, it’s even harder to woo a girl with a bucket of Popeye’s. Lots of actual and would-be couples will be dining out this Valentine’s weekend—splurging on champagne and basking in candlelight. For many, such indulgence is a rare treat. But what’s not rare is the dining out. The odds an adult will eat a meal at a restaurant at least once a week are 1 in 1.52 (66%)—the same as the odds a person 16 or older is in the labor force (1 in 1.52).

Okay, so on a week-to-week basis we are talking more Cracker Barrel than we are Le Cirque. And when it comes down to what Americans like to eat, it’s the Outback Bloomin’ Onion most of us are craving, not duck confit—the odds an adult prefers American food when dining out are 1 in 3.57. Even so,most of us can’t make do at home. According to the National Restaurant Association, 65% of us feel we’re unable to duplicate the taste and flavor of our favorite restaurant foods in our own kitchens.

And there are other excuses for dining out beyond a desire for something sinful—like it’s been a long day at work, the kids are whining for McDonald’s, or you just plain don’t know how to cook. You might even use the rationale that with many vacation plans curtailed by the recession, dining out can be a way of exploring other cultures without taking an expensive vacation to an exotic locale.
Even though most adults go for American food when dining out, hankerings for Italian or Mexican cuisine run a close 2nd and 3rd (1 in 4.55 and 1 in 5.88, respectively). Italy and Mexico are among the top foreign destinations for American travelers, so perhaps there actually is a correlation between vacation destinations and preferred food. It’s far less likely, only 1 in 100, that an adult prefers Middle-Eastern food when dining out.

The restaurant industry comprises about 9% of the American workforce—12.7 million people—and expects to add 1.3 million more jobs over the next 10 years. But there are a substantial number of Americans who are trying to save money by dining out less—and cooking more. A Gallup poll comparing dining habits in 2003, 2005, and 2008 shows that at both ends of the economic spectrum, people are dining out as frequently as they used to, but among the middle class—and young adults of all socioeconomic levels—the numbers have fallen. Old-fashioned canning supply sales are skyrocketing, and more people are enrolling in cooking classes for non-professionals.

While cans and cooking classes may cost a bit of money up front, it’s likely that they’re still money-savers compared to frequent restaurant meals. Many chowhounds don’t realize that restaurants hire professional menu engineers to format descriptions and prices in a way that persuades diners to part with more of their money than they might have budgeted.

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