Tough economic times don't translate to less restaurant use

by Allison Sebolt
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KANSAS CITY — In taking a look at consumer eating patterns during stable or tough economic times, there is a fundamental truth that will guide food purchasing patterns, according to The NPD Group.

"There is only one thing we know and one thing we can count on — Americans will never let their food budgets rise faster than their incomes. … Every generation expects their incomes will rise faster than their food expenditures," said Harry Balzer, vice-president of The NPD Group, in a recent webinar on consumer eating patterns. "I don’t think that’s going to change today. Even if food prices rise faster than income, we are going to moderate our food budget so we can keep it rising slower than our incomes."

In its "Twenty-third Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America," The NPD Group said the food dollar is split relatively evenly between food service and retail, noting consumers spend 48.8% of their food dollars at food service outlets. However, food service meals cost significantly more than in-home meals.

The 10 most popular foods consumers eat in-home are sandwiches, vegetables, potatoes, fruit, bread, ready-to-eat cereal, chicken, salads, milk and carbonated soft drinks. This list is remarkably similar to the same list in 1984, with beef and eggs being the only items on the previous list not on the current list.

"By looking at the 2008 list, I’ve told you what people are going to eat in 2030. … The only thing I don’t know is what is going to be the brand, what’s going to be the form, how is this going to be delivered to me — that’s going to be different," Mr. Balzer said.

In addition, Americans are consuming more pizza, yogurt, poultry, sandwiches, bottled water and frozen entrees than in 1984.

"Yogurt is the food of the day — hands-down, yogurt wins," Mr. Balzer said. "Yogurt gets growth at breakfast, lunch, supper, as a meal, as a snack, as a side-dish, as a carried product. … Men, women, children — all are eating it more than a generation ago."

Americans are also consuming less ground beef, toast, steak, peas and beef roast than in 1984.

"The things we are consuming more tend to be more packaged goods, things that are already done."

When asked what consumer plans in the next month are for having dinner at a full-service sit-down restaurant, 73% of consumers said their plans will stay the same, and 21% said they plan on eating out less. However, Mr. Balzer isn’t convinced this is a true indicator of habits.

"Americans say they are going to use restaurants less … but I’m not sure that really means we are using restaurants less," he said. "It’s just an easy thing to say because I’ve been asking this question every other week for six years, and I always get the same response. We always say we plan to use restaurants less whether it’s good times or bad times, so I’m not sure this is reflective of what we are really doing. This is just reflective of how we feel about making foods in-home versus buying foods at restaurants."

In fact, according to NPD data, there was a 0.7% increase in restaurant traffic during the last quarter. However, Mr. Balzer noted the biggest change is the number of annual meals purchased at restaurants per person. In 1984, consumers averaged 168 meals per person in food service, and the number reached a peak in 2001 at 211 meals per person. In the years since then, it has declined a bit to 207 in 2007 and is projected to stay the same in 2008.

"When you hear about restaurants closing their doors, it’s not because Americans are eating out less, they are not eating out more," Mr. Balzer said. "That’s the big problem. ... It’s become a market share battle."

Mr. Balzer stressed that the majority of meals (71%) are still prepared in-home or consumed as the guest in someone’s home. Only 19% of meals are sourced from food service. In addition, 57% of all supper in-home dishes are prepared by the consumer. However, a rapid increase in the number of meals prepared in-home is unlikely.

"There is nothing that’s going … to give us a greater desire to cook more," Mr. Balzer said.

Mr. Balzer added that in the recent past, issues such as trans fat and organics have been hot buttons driving issues for consumers. He predicted the next big issue will be probiotics as more consumers work to include the healthy bacteria into their diets.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 14, 2008, starting on Page 21. Click here to search that archive.

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