Convenience, changed eating habits, finances lead Americans to eat out less

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – The fall of 2001 was difficult for the dining industry because Americans ate out less often, according to a nationwide survey of 1,895 adults.

Changes in dining habits, however, were not the result of Sept. 11 and the events that followed it, nor to concerns about bioterrorism or mad cow disease. Instead, the decline appears to be due to broader social factors such as the state of the national economy, which was already in recession before September.

Less often. There is no doubt that consumers ate out less often in November 2001 than they did at the same time the year before. To measure the overall trend, consumers were asked what types of restaurants they typically visited.

Results for each type of restaurant asked about were fast food, 84 percent; casual, 74 percent; family cafeteria, 53 percent; upscale restaurants, 27 percent, and coffee shops, 28 percent.

For each type of restaurant that a respondent said they visited, they were asked how visitation patterns had changed in the last year. Depending on restaurant type, 52 percent to 59 percent of consumers said they had not changed their behavior, while 22 percent to 34 percent visited less often. Fourteen percent to 23 percent said they visited more often.

Fast food impacts. The decline in dining out had its biggest impact on fast food restaurants, with 34 percent of respondents reporting visiting less often, with decreases for the other types of restaurants varying from about a fifth to about a quarter.

Among those decreasing their visits, about a quarter of those who decreased visits to upscale restaurants or coffee shops said they had cut back by 75 percent or more.

Among visitors who decreased their visits to other types of restaurants, only about 10 percent said they had cut back by 75 percent or more.

Consumers who were eating out less often were asked why this was so. Contrary to researchers’ expectations, respondents did not cite concerns about food safety or more general security concerns. Less than 1 percent of consumers explicitly mentioned these as reasons for eating out less often.

What’s to blame? Reasons for the decrease vary depending on the type of restaurant one talks about. Changes in eating habits and concerns about fat in food were the critical factors for consumers who reduced their visits to fast food restaurants.

By contrast, consumers who visited upscale restaurants less often attributed the change to economic factors. While these results suggest that Sept. 11 and related events were not key factors affecting consumer behavior, around a fifth of respondents who said they were eating out less often said this was because they preferred to stay home.

With the exception of those who are visiting upscale restaurants, consumers who are visiting restaurants more often typically emphasize the overall convenience of eating out or the convenient location of restaurants to home or work.

They also frequently mentioned that they are too busy to cook themselves. Consumers who are frequenting upscale restaurants more often mention the quality of the food as the critical motivator.

Younger generation. The survey results also show that younger consumers have modified their dining behavior more in the past year, with the exception of visits to upscale restaurants.

Key findings include that older consumers are much less likely to have changed their behavior in the last year; and younger consumers are more likely to have both increased and decreased their dining out behavior in the past year.

These findings suggest that young people respond more to economic factors, such as the recession and other trends. Their lower incomes and greater vulnerability during layoffs in a recession may help explain why some are dining out less often.

But at the same time, those young people who have jobs may be experiencing their first taste of substantial disposable income and developing their personal adult tastes for food in restaurants.

Ethnic differences. The survey also showed that Hispanics and African Americans are more likely to have decreased the frequency of their visits to certain types of restaurants.

Nearly 50 percent of Hispanics are eating at fast food restaurants less often, and 39 percent of African Americans are visiting casual restaurants less often than they did a year ago.

The primary reasons for Hispanics’ decreased visits to fast food restaurants are changes in eating habits, including eating healthier, 81 percent; perceptions that food is too fattening, 66 percent; the desire to cook at home, 54 percent; and having less disposable income, 32 percent.

African Americans who are eating less often at casual restaurants are doing so primarily for financial reasons, including having less disposable income, 59 percent; cooking more at home, 49 percent; preferring to stay at home, 49 percent; and changes in eating habits, 47 percent.

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