Americans turning to restaurants, not grocery stores, for mealtime

Restaurants cater to younger diners who are leading the trend

For the first time since the government started keeping track in 1992, Americans — led by those in the millennial generation — spent more money last month in restaurants and bars than they did in grocery stores.

This region’s restaurant owners say they’re not surprised at the shift in spending patterns, and they’re taking steps to attract younger diners.

Dan Young, CEO of Young’s Jersey Dairy and the Golden Jersey Inn in Clark County north of Yellow Springs, said today’s families work long and sometimes unpredictable hours and have limited time to spend together.

“Yes, they can get a nice meal from the grocery store, but if your ‘together’ time is limited, who wants to spend that time preparing the meal?” Young said. “Why not meet your family or friends at a local restaurant and enjoy each other’s company while choosing from a much wider selection of food than you typically would at home?”

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported last week that Americans spent $52.3 billion at restaurants and bars in March, and $49.7 billion in grocery stores — the first time grocery spending lagged restaurant/bar expenditures.

The National Restaurant Association reported earlier this month that despite extreme weather in many parts of the country, its “Restaurant Performance Index” (RPI) — a monthly barometer of the the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry — held steady in February, which also marked the 24th consecutive month in which the RPI signified improvement in key industry indicators.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for the restaurant association, said restaurant operators are increasingly optimistic about business conditions and potential sales growth in the months ahead. About 59 percent of restaurant operators expect to have higher sales in six months, compared to the same period in the previous year, up from 57 percent the previous month. In contrast, only 4 percent of restaurant operators expect their sales volume in six months to be lower than it was during the same period in the previous year, restaurant association officials said.

The association offers advice to restaurant managers on its web site on how to cater to the twenty-somethings and early-thirty-somethings who are increasingly likely to let others prepare their meals.

“Millennials view dining out as a social event (i.e. a chance to connect),” the association says on its web site. “They prefer to eat at restaurants with a lot of choices and lower price points. They tend to favor fast food, deli food and pizza restaurants over coffee shops, high-end dining and casual dining.

“Equally important for restaurateurs to remember is that millennials can be moving targets. While they develop brand attractions and support reward and loyalty programs, their allegiances can be very flexible according to their circumstances.”

Young, whose restaurant and ice cream shop are geared toward families, said diners in the 25-to-34 age group are “eager to try new tastes, probably because they have been exposed to more variety growing up.”

“Plus, with today’s amazing technology, it just takes a few tweets or texts and you can be visiting a nice restaurant with family and friends in a few minutes,” Young said. “Spontaneous is so much easier than when most of the 25-to-34-year-olds were born —when the family had one, maybe two phones at home, and families had to plan out the day ahead of time.”

Shanon Morgan, president of the Miami Valley Restaurant Association, agreed that technology — and in particular, social media — are stimulating restaurant and bar business, especially among younger diners.

“It’s much cooler to check in at the local tap room than the local grocery store,” Morgan said.

Jay’s Restaurant in Dayton’s Oregon Historic District has begun advertising more heavily on social-media sites and has launched “happy hour” specials on Tuesday and Wednesday in part to attract more younger diners, according to Amy Haverstick, Jay’s Restaurant’s owner, who is herself the mother of a 2-year-old.

“People my age, the couples are working full time, and they’re finding the easy way out — it’s all about convenience,” Haverstick said. “Life just seems to be a lot more fast-paced for our generation.”

Darren Tristano — executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food service research and consulting firm — said his company’s research “continues to show that the millennial consumer has integrated dining away from home deeper into its identity compared to older generations. They appreciate the socialization and the lifestyle element that restaurant visits bring to their overall quality of life.”

Tristano said members of the millennial generation “continue to use restaurants with great frequency, and as their spending power builds, so will their dining (expenditures). Favorable employment and disposable income growth trends along with lower gas prices are fueling the return by many younger consumers to restaurants.”

Millennials, Tristano said, “are the future, and along with them, the key to many restaurants’ future.”

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