Job growth in the food service industry

What does America make? Increasingly, at least in terms of the number of workers, the answer is food:

In 1990, manufacturing was almost three times larger than the food service industry. But restaurants have gradually closed the gap. At current rates of growth, more people will work at restaurants than in manufacturing in 2020. This mirrors the shift in consumer spending. Restaurants’ share of America’s food budget has doubled from 25 percent in the 1950s to 50 percent today.


Yet, as Derek Thompson notes, our national rhetoric is still stuck in the era of factories and manufacturing:

But the most important feature of the restaurant jobs boom is not what it may say about the future, but rather the fact that it is happening in the first place. Trump and other politicians often say they want to help the common worker. But then they talk about the economy as if it were cryogenically frozen sometime around 1957. The U.S. still makes stuff, but mostly it serves stuff. To help American workers, it helps to begin with an honest accounting of what Americans actually do.

The jobs landscape has experienced much change in the last half century. Certain sectors – such as the tech industry or manufacturing – consistently receive a lot of attention. But, could someone unite the interests as well as depict a group to the public at large that would include restaurant workers, service workers, and nurses (among other fields that have grown tremendously)?

Pizza Hut buildings with new uses

What happens to Pizza Hut buildings around the world once they are no longer home to the pizza chain?

Many of the vintage red roof buildings have been repurposed. Tran and Cahill, aren’t the first to notice or even document this change, but their photos nevertheless offer a fascinating glimpse at the weird ways these buildings are being used now.

They’ve found old huts reincarnated as Asian restaurants, dry cleaners, liquor stores, churches, and even funeral homes. Google Maps helped find locations, and online communities of hut fans have provided invaluable help since the started the project in 2013.

The pair, based in Sydney, has logged about 8,700 miles photographing almost 100 locations. They covered Australia and New Zealand before taking a great American “pizza hunt” road trip. They travelled through California, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, just to name a few states. Wherever they went, Cahill and Tran made a point of getting to know the locals and getting the scoop on a building’s history. “In Chicago, we made a phone call to a business because we weren’t sure if it was a legitimate hut, and a very helpful store clerk gave us a full history of the building dating back to ’91,” Cahill says.

The fast food/restaurant experience is not just about the food but also includes the building and their architecture. Looking at the images from their book Pizza Hunt, it doesn’t take much imagine to them as functioning outlets of a global brand. I wonder if this previous architecture helps or hinders the new occupants. For example, does turning an old Pizza Hut building into a church (image 10/10) bring in more or less people? Does the Asian food (images 1/10 and 4/10) taste any different in such a building? I’m guessing the architecture and design may have little effect on later behavior and attitudes; perhaps this really says something about our approach in constructing functional, suburban buildings where one of the top priorities is that it can be easily adapted to numerous uses.

“The Underappreciated Architecture of Waffle House”

Waffle House recently announced plans for a fancier new building in New Orleans. One journalist suggests this undervalues the chain’s existing architecture:

Waffle House is not Chartres Cathedral, admittedly, but it has a certain architectural je ne sais quoi. The classic Waffle House is minimalist in design, with a lemon-yellow strip running around the top, above a wide band of windows and, often, a red or red-striped awning. The interior is outfitted with retro globe lights and red-and-chrome stools. Unlike most fast-food joints, Waffle House has an open kitchen, so you can watch the cooks as they scatter and smother your hash browns…

New Orleanians will be excited to get a Waffle House in Mid-City, and I would never begrudge them that. But this new design is all wrong for Waffle House as a brand, and falls short of its status as a Southern icon.

The company owes that status to an architect you’ve never heard of, Clifford A. Nahser. A World War II veteran and Georgia Tech graduate, Nahser was still a fledgling architect when Waffle House co-founder Joe Rogers Sr. approached him for help designing his prototype diner in Avondale Estates, near Atlanta. As the chain grew, Nahser went on to design hundreds more restaurants, drawing up the plans in his basement after his day job at Atlanta Public Schools…

What bothers me is not that Waffle House feels it’s time for a change (maybe it is) so much as the direction they’ve chosen. As the “loft” aesthetic has permeated American culture, we’re seeing watered-down faux-warehouse details in outposts of Chipotle and Starbucks, and that is the style we see here. It’s as generic as the classic Waffle House look is distinctive. Couldn’t the company have hired an architect known for his or her use of bold color to bring more of a pop sensibility?

There seem to be two main issues at play here:

1. How much should restaurant chains (and for that matter, retail chains as well) look alike or different? Waffle House has a very recognizable logo as well as a common design aesthetic. How much does this help the brand in terms of sales, nostalgia, recognition? Does a chain benefit from looking significantly different than other chains or should there be some similarity so people feel they can comfortably cross over?

2. How much do architectural movements – here, a more minimalistic and modernist design – get translated into fast food restaurants? I’ve argued before that Americans don’t particularly like modernist homes but perhaps this kind of modernist architecture is associated with a particular industry (fast food) that arose in the post-World War II era of prosperity and highways. The architecture and landscape of interstates and suburban sprawl is often criticized so how many people would defend the look of Waffle House?

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.

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.

Why is Midway nowhere close to the food options of O’Hare?

Eater rates the restaurants at O’Hare and Midway Airports and it isn’t even close: O’Hare is a lot better. Here is the top 8 at O’Hare:

1. Tortas Frontera;  2. Wicker Park Sushi Bar; 3. Wolfgang Puck Cafe; 4. Berghoff Cafe; 5. La Tapenade; 6. Big Bowl; 7. Beaudevin; 8. Garrett Popcorn.

City institutions plus big names at O’Hare. In contrast, the top 8 at Midway seem like what you would find at a shopping mall food court:

1. Manny’s; 2. Potbelly; 3. Pegasus on the Fly; 4. Harry Caray’s Seventh Inning Stretch; 5. Lalo’s; 6. Gold Coast Dogs; 7. Reilly’s Daughter

Perhaps there are some good reasons for this like more passengers at O’Hare (the 6th most passengers in the world), more space at O’Hare (more and bigger terminals plus more passengers provides more room for restaurants while Midway has one food court and then some scattered small options), and a wider range of passengers at O’Hare (Southwest dominates Midway, more first-class and international passengers at O’Hare). One way to boost Midway’s profile would be to improve these food options. It is the smaller airport and has more budget flight options but it was the first passenger airport in Chicago and has a unique place as such an urban airport in a global city.

But, knowing that this is Chicago, I wonder how much food contracts differ between the two airports. Even as O’Hare is more lucrative, why doesn’t Midway have any major name or food choice? Harry Carey’s might have the biggest name recognition (ironic it is located in the South Side airport) but it isn’t exactly known in the restaurant world for great food. Is there something odd about how restaurants at these airports are chosen?

Millennials eat out 199 times a year on average

A larger article about new trends in eating in America includes these figures about how much millennials eat out:

Disproportionately affected by the recession, the average millennial is expected to make 199 visits this year, down from 250 in 2008. But the restaurants they frequent are some of the fastest-growing chains.

This seems really high to me but it also fits with being in a certain stage in life. People eat roughly 1,000 times a year (give or take some meals) so eating out 199 times is roughly one-fifth. I have never gotten anywhere near these kinds of numbers myself but I could understand why it happens. It takes a lot of time to cook from planning out meals to buying groceries to cooking to cleaning up. Especially if millennials are consumed by their career, all of this business about food may just be too much. Eating can often be a social event, whether with co-workers or friends or family. On the other hand, eating out is often way more expensive – so perhaps it is a trade-off of time versus money. Also, many restaurants of today lack character or give you much of a reason to want to stick around outside of the immediate people you are with. And, maybe this isn’t just about millennials: I’ve seen figures in recent years that suggest 1/4 of American adults eat fast food every day.

All of this reminds me of Michael Pollan’s writings about how we treat food in the United States. Instead of eating natural food in relaxed and sociable settings (that can take hours – so perhaps you lose the time advantage), we tend to eat to be filled up or too have the proper amount of nutrients.

So how do restaurants try to appeal to millennials? Here is how one restaurant does it: by appealing to customization.

To appeal to millennials, Harald Herrmann, CEO of Yard House, a 42-unit chain focused on American fare and a vast beer selection, said customization is key.

“They don’t want to be confined to anything,” Herrmann said. “If you can put an offering out there that allows four to five millennials the opportunity to behave any way that they want and make decisions on the fly in an environment that’s casual and fun in a way that they can be expressive, then you’re onto something.”

At Yard House, Herrmann said, 30 entrees can be made vegetarian. He added that many groups of young customers eat their meals family style, ordering a number of dishes to pass around.

The ability for self-expression has also proved crucial in keeping millennial employees happy.

The chain, which works hard to include employee feedback, recently made visible tattoos acceptable for employees.

One other thought: I’ve seen a number of articles lately about the potential purchasing power of millennials. But, without good jobs and perhaps more stable situations, this spending is not going to happen at the levels it could. So…why don’t many politicians talk about this?