Eating at home may be one of the few behavioral changes from the recession that stick.
Forced to eat more meals at home when money was tight, people learned new habits. Some discovered they enjoy cooking and dining in. As the economy improves and families have more spending money, they’re still saving restaurants for special occasions.
Restaurants traditionally have led other types of businesses out of a recession. This time, they’re at least a year and a half behind retailers. Sales of clothing grew 5 percent last year and autos rose 11 percent, as Americans started feeling better about their finances. At casual sit-down restaurants such as Outback Steakhouse, the increase was just 1 percent. Some analysts say that could be the new norm.
"People are becoming not only accustomed to eating at home, they’re enjoying it," said Darren Tristano of the restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc. "They can sit in front of their 50-inch flat-screens and not have to tip a waiter."
Americans lead the world in restaurant spending. About 44 percent of food dollars are spent outside the home — a figure that started rising sharply in the 1970s, as more women joined the work force. Full-service restaurant revenue rose 5 percent to 7 percent a year in the decade leading up to the Great Recession, which halted growth. Over the next decade, visits to restaurants are forecast to increase less than 1 percent a year, according to the NPD Group.
This behavioral rewiring is hurting restaurants from New York to San Diego. December is usually a strong month for restaurants, but many proprietors say it was disappointing. Although retailers were reporting their strongest holiday sales since 2007, restaurants were fighting to fill booths.
"We did a lot more couponing in the latter part of the year," said Todd Ramsey, general manager of Hunter Steakhouse in San Diego’s Mission Valley. "It was important to keep our name out there."
Discounting is not sustainable in an industry with 3-percent profit margins. If the costs of food and utilities rise, that could kill restaurants that are just hanging on, said Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association.
Of course, not everyone aspires to be a home chef. Plenty of people would rather pay someone else to do the cooking — and cleanup — and will rush back to Olive Garden the minute their finances allow. Two out of five consumers say they’re not dining out as much as they would like, according to Hudson Riehle, a researcher at the National Restaurant Association.
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