Dinner is Served – But Not at Home

This past May, for the first time in history, U.S. restaurant sales exceeded grocery store sales.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spent more money eating out in May than they did buying groceries. This has never before been the case.

At the dawn of the modern restaurant, 200-plus years ago, restaurants served a comparatively narrow audience. Early patrons might have been anemic — visiting the “restore”-ant, as translated from the French, for a restorative herbal soup. Or they might have been travelers — staying at an inn and relying on the food it served for sustenance. There were also the drinkers — girding their systems against the booze at the local pub, cafe or tavern — and then of course, there were the pitiful bachelors, unable to fend for themselves.

Gradually, restaurants became places to go for special occasions — where old friends reunited and new friendships formed. They became places where retired couples chatted about the children they raised, where growing families escaped their daily routine and where young couples took the first steps toward creating their own families. Restaurants set the stage for many of the most enjoyable hours in a life well-lived.

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Restaurants still play all of these roles, and have added a few new ones — serving as both backdrops for business people to make pitches and work through deals, and havens for employees looking to disconnect from the work day grind or take working lunches. They’re where fatigued families forgo the hassle of a home-cooked meal at the end of a long day. Over the years, restaurants have become a destination not just for special occasions, but for everyday life.

In the process, they’ve become the landing pad for a good chunk of America’s disposable income.

The National Restaurant Association projects that in 2015, patrons will spend about $709 billion in American restaurants. Even though the spending growth has slowed in recent years, that’s nearly double what patrons spent in the year 2000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

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Several factors may have combined to spur restaurant sales ahead of grocery sales during the past several months. Included among them is the recent drop in gas prices — providing more disposable income — paired with the rise of big box stores that tend to keep grocery prices low.

But the longer-term trend predates any of those factors.

In 1985, it was still a big deal for a family to go out to dinner. You sat down at home and ate your red beans and rice, your meatballs and spaghetti or your pork chops and peas, and that was that. You ate out when somebody graduated from high school…maybe.

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Thirty years before that, it was even more of a rarity. According to the National Restaurant Association, dining out consumed only about 25 percent of the food dollar in 1955.

Today, it’s more than 50 percent.

Americans are spending a lot of time (and money) in restaurants. This is a significant economic shift — a significant cultural shift. The implications could fill a book.

But for now, I’ll just take a look at the dessert menu.

Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.



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