Americans spend more at restaurants than at grocery stores; use restaurants in new ways

Spending data from the Census shows that for the first time Americans spent more at restaurants than on buying food at grocery stores:

More than two decades ago, Americans spent $162 in groceries for every $100 they spent in restaurants. But this past January, they spent nearly equal amounts of money in both places: $50.475 billion in restaurants and bars, and $50.466 billion in grocery stores.

There are several social changes behind this:

Perry attributes the numbers to dropping gas prices, which have left many people with more disposable income. But it’s unlikely that a single factor is to thank for the trend. “I think it’s a combination of a recovering economy and changing eating habits,” he said, extrapolating that “the millennial generation [may be] more likely to eat out than cook at home.” Perry also noted that dining in restaurants simply isn’t the once-in-a-blue-moon event it used to be…

Martha Hoover, the founder of sprawling Indianapolis restaurant empire Patachou, goes one step further: Restaurants have earned a role in society that is equal to “work” or “home.”…

“We’ve seen a huge shift in San Francisco,” she told Yahoo Food. “I’ve seen people who treat restaurants like they do in New York City: as their kitchens.” Weinberg attributes the change to people working longer hours, leaving them with little time to prepare their own meals. Grocery shopping, too, can be a pricey proposition if one develops a predilection for organic and local fare.

In other words, home and family life has changed alongside different economic options. We might also see restaurants more as “third places” between work and home where people can socialize and pay for their meals in a comfortable in between space.

Anthropologists used to convince Americans to eat organ meats during WWII

Need to get Americans to eat organ meats so beef can be sent to soldiers during World War II? Bring in anthropologists:

To head the committee, the NRC recruited anthropologist Margaret Mead, along with German-born psychologist Kurt Lewin (considered to be one of the founders of social psychology). At the top of their agenda: addressing the looming meat shortage. More specifically, they needed to devise a way to convince Americans to abandon their steaks, pork chops, and other familiar cuts in favor of the meats that the soldiers wouldn’t eat—the hearts, livers, and other organs that remained plentiful stateside.

The committee members had their work cut out for them. Organ meats at the time were largely shunned by all but the poorest Americans, considered a marker of low social status or a rural, unsophisticated upbringing—and of all the social taboos, those related to food are among the most difficult to dispel, said Barrett Brenton, a nutritional anthropologist at St. John’s University…

One of the major reasons, they soon found through their research, was organs’ unfamiliarity—people balked at the idea of serving something without knowing its taste or even how best to prepare it. In response, the committee urged the government to produce materials that couched the new meats in more comfortable terms…

And thus, “variety meats” were born. Butchers, who already sold organ meats for fewer ration points than premium cuts, were encouraged to adopt the new term with their customers; so were reporters with their readers…

The effect, though, lasted barely longer than the war itself.

Not quite the glamor of Indiana Jones but still fighting the Nazis by replacing beef with lesser cuts of meat. This also hints of American’s long interest in beef, not just an invention of fast food or post-World War II prosperity.

Would leading anthropologists be willing to join such a war cause today?

 

Seeing the effects of globalization in Mumbai’s suburban restaurants

A historian looks at the changing suburban dining patterns in Mumbai’s suburbs:

“Globalization has brought in a consumerist culture and the socio-cultural category that we broadly label as middle class is growing in importance. The movement of people, culture goods and ideas from one part of the world to another has forged new links between diverse cultures and peoples.

“In India, the food service industry is a very old business. Such service evolved from early khanavals and small restaurants in Bombay. While taverns and inns typically provided food and lodging, the food service industry as a whole has been continually growing throughout the last two decades. The industry has seen one of the strongest continuous growth periods in the mid to later part of 1990’s. While much of the growth has occurred in restaurant and catering, institutional food service has also shown steady growth. The restaurant industry has strongly established itself as an essential part of urban India’s lifestyle. Consumers continue to look for convenience, value and an entertaining environment away from the stresses of daily life, and restaurateurs are filling those needs. In recent years, the number of alternatives available to consumers for purchasing food prepared away from home has increased dramatically…

“The study is also important because restaurants are evolving from just places to eat to an entire experience. While we have in Mumbai and its suburbs, full-service restaurants, hotel-restaurants, fast-food restaurants, buffets, food courts, tea & coffee parlors, fine dine restaurants, messes, canteens, khanavals, there are no full-fledged studies, neither sociological, nor anthropological nor historical, either on their popularity or clientele. Such a study will discuss their growth, strengths, and will naturally be a record of the eating out behavior of the Mumbaikar…

“I hypothesize that: There has been a mushrooming of restaurants in suburban Mumbai in the post-globalization period; Consumption patterns have undergone a drastic change during the period under study; The attitude towards public dining in the suburbs has undergone a change; The growing middle class is the clientele at places of public dining; Double incomes, travel abroad and cookery shows are greatly responsible for the change in the attitude towards food and dining; Food consumption patterns in restaurants can shape and influence the social history of suburban Mumbai.

Sounds like it could be quite interesting on multiple levels. The study of food seems to be growing in importance among academics as it involves looking at common practices and it is relatively easy to make comparisons. Yet, I’m most intrigued by this idea of a suburban restaurant culture developing outside Mumbai. It isn’t just about what food is ordered, prepared, and ends up on plates – it is also about a way of life around suburban restaurants. If I had to describe this in the United States, it would likely involve lots of chain restaurants surrounded by parking lots and populated by relatively middle-class individuals looking to enjoy food outside the home. Perhaps one could focus on the restaurant: it often is in an outlot of a larger shopping center, it has some sort of kitschy Americana decor, tends to have some televisions showing sports, and patrons don’t stay too long. Or focus on how Americans budget money for eating out as a regular part of their entertainment and/or food spending. All of this looks different than urban eating which may focus on smaller restaurants, hipper and more cutting-edge places, and a different feel.

More Americans eating at home

One of the questions to emerge out of this recent recession is which pre-recession patterns will return once the economic climate improves. One report suggests that although spending levels have increased again, eating at home might be a more permanent pattern:

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 like Outback Steakhouse, the increase was just 1 percent. Some analysts say that could be the new norm…

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 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. That’s less than the population will grow.

Instead of handing their money over to mediocre eateries during the week, people are saving up for the occasional nice meal, says Stifel Nicolaus analyst Steve West. Meanwhile, cooking has become hip, says Rick Smilow, president of the Institute for Culinary Education, where registration for recreational courses was up 10 percent last year.

It would be interesting to see more data on this: how many of these meals at home are made out of mostly fresh ingredients? What kind of food are people spending money on – taking that restaurant money to buy more expensive items or trying to eat on the cheap? How much less are people spending on food overall as they eat out less?

The perception about eating at home might be crucial. The idea that cooking is now “hip” could be tied to a number of factors including more upscale grocery stores (the equivalent of shopping at Whole Foods versus Wal-Mart), a number of celebrity chefs, and around-the-clock cooking shows. Eating at home may be good for the financial bottom line but it will appeal to a lot more people if it is cool.