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Recession or no recession, Americans still dining out.

First, the hard reality: No one in foodservice is going to argue that the recession has been good for business in the restaurant industry. When consumer confidence drops, the foodservice industry suffers.

Now for the not-so-hard reality: Americans currently spend 43 percent of their food dollar on food prepared away from home, compared to 36 percent in 1981. And that percentage is considered likely to increase in the future. For better or for worse, patronizing foodservice has become an integral part of contemporary lifestyles.

Dining out behavior during the last year-and-a-half bears this out. National Restaurant Association statistics show that, even in the depths of the recession, customers have maintained their frequency of eating and ordering out. True, they are probably spending fewer dollars on each occasion (one reason why restaurateurs may feel things are worse than they are) but their obvious reluctance to "brown bag it" or stay at home, even in the face of declining real disposable income, suggests that this recession will not curtail growth projections for the foodservice industry in a significant way.

Granted, when we say "growth," we are not talking about the go-go years of the late 1970s and early '80s, a period when overall economic growth was higher and the industry was in a less mature phase. Nevertheless, the National Restaurant Association has projected foodservice industry sales to reach $262 billion this year, an increase of 5.6 percent over 1991, or 1.8 percent when adjusted for inflation. That figure is much better than last year, when inflation-adjusted sales rose only 0.5 percent.

This increase reflects an anticipated modest improvement in the nation's economy. Indeed, as incomes rise again during the coming months, industry forecasters predict that a "pent-up demand" for food away from home -- particularly for dinners out -- will reassert itself.

A recent Gallup survey commissioned by the National Restaurant Association underscores this prediction. It shows that while 73 percent of American adults are eating out as often as they would like, a desire to eat out even more frequently exists among 27 percent of adults.

At every level -- from fine dining to fast food -- the restaurant industry has worked to maintain customer traffic by responding to the needs of financially pinched patrons through value pricing and special promotions such as "frequent diner programs." And it appears that their efforts have been rewarded. Association research conducted in 1991 confirms that the majority of consumers feel that restaurant meals meet or exceed their value expectations. The fact that menu price inflation is at its lowest annual rate since 1965 is no surprise.

Nevertheless, even as we ease out of the recession -- and, believe me, we are on our way -- restaurateurs must not forget the dramatic effect this particular downturn had on the pockets of Americans from all walks of life, including one of the primary foodservice markets, white-collar professionals. Restaurateurs will continue to face the challenge of accommodating their patrons' continuing economic anxieties.

The 1990s will be a great decade to be a restaurant customer. He or she will have more options to choose from and greater influence than ever before. But I predict it will be a great decade to be a part of foodservice as well. In fact, by the year 2005 foodservice employees will represent more than eight percent of the nation's total workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington.
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Author:Marriott, Richard E.
Publication:Frozen Food Digest
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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