No One Used to Eat Out, but Now It's a National Pastime
In the late 1970s, when I and my then-husband were graduate students, we had a special monthly ritual — we’d go to the local grocery store and buy two bear claws, those sugary almond-topped bakery delights. It felt like the greatest culinary treat in the world. We never went to restaurants nor picked up take-out food because we had no money for that, and because such an idea never occurred to us. Ever. We were people who made food at home and brought our lunch to school and never thought a thing about it. Neither did any of our friends because back then people didn’t eat out much, if at all.
But this year, when the Covid-19 restrictions reduced the availability of prepared food and closed sit-down restaurants, we all learned how this particular safety measure contributed dramatically to the economic downturn of the country. It also made the populace furious because eating out seems to have developed into a kind of Constitutional right. But it wasn’t always like this. In the past 30 years, the United States has experienced a cultural revolution about food, where it’s made and how we eat it, and that revolution has made the economy and many people’s psyches vulnerable. And that signals a major change in the belief system about food in this culture.
The new daily normal of regularly paying others to prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner starkly compares with life a generation ago when eating out was a special time, an expense not taken lightly. When I was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s, I cannot remember a single time my middle-class family went out to eat, except on vacation where we stayed with relatives and only caught lunch at a Howard Johnsons (like today’s Applebees) on the route to and from our aunt’s house. My mother worked full time, which was unusual back then, but she came home and cooked for a family of six. Even if the smorgasbord of take-out food had existed back then, I am sure my mother, a product of the Great Depression, would never in her life have ordered out. She would have seen that as a foolish waste of money. And there weren’t so many prepared food options back then even if she had wanted to bring home a meal.
But now, according to the National Restaurant Association, the United States has around one million restaurants that employ about 16 million people. The website Upserve says 200 million Americans went to a sit-down restaurant in 2018. And overall, the restaurant business has been rising steadily. Up until the Covid-19 virus, the National Restaurant Association saw a 3–4% increase in restaurant eating and drinking every year. That increase amounts to 863 billion dollars that Americans spend annually on having someone else make their meals.
We do this not only at sit down places but also with carry-out, drive-through, delivery, now curbside delivery, and food trucks. Apparently, 60% of American households order food delivery or take out at least once a week. And this happens despite the high cost to consumers. Thirty-four percent of those take-out and delivery orders exceed $50 each. And these numbers don’t even include the common option of buying prepared food at the grocery store, which obviously should be classified as “take-out.”
Consumers are more than willing to spend their hard-earned money in this way, even with the viable, and more cost-effective option of buying groceries and cooking. Market Watch has pointed out that twenty years ago the average household spent 10% of its income on groceries and only 5.5% on eating out. Now that ratio has shifted to 7.2% on grocery store goods and 6% on eating out. And yet, cooking and eating at home has always been the much cheaper option — the price of grocery items has been systematically falling for years.
The driving forces that motivate those opting for prepared food over homemade, the National Restaurant Association says, is twofold — it’s the convenience of having someone else cook and the socialization that comes with dining with friends or in the company of a nameless crowd. The Association also explains that 63% of people in this country would rather buy an experience than a thing, and restaurant eating is considered an adventure and not just a meal. Take-out and delivery are convenient and a good option for a group that doesn’t feel like cooking, so there is socialization with that as well. It’s also true that prepared food is now part of normal life because more women have entered the workforce and eschewed the traditional role of the family cook. Men, it seems, have not opted to take on that role very often although some do. And single people work all day and have no energy to make something just for themselves, and so they go out or take out.
Since eating out costs so much more, there must be other factors beyond convenience and socialization that have altered the food landscape in America. It might be that people have more disposable income these days and so they eat out, but that can’t be true since people from all income brackets take advantage of food from some other kitchen. Perhaps they are enticed by the plethora of ethnic food that has sprouted up with our multicultural society. If you live in a city, which most Americans do these days, there is food from every culture on earth right around the corner, and that can be an enlightening as well as a tasty alternative than the usual home fare.
But the consequences of depending on this industry and pouring money into it has now reared its ugly head. As we’ve seen during the economic crash caused by the pandemic lockdown, the eating out industry has become a sort of one crop economy with much of the population dependent on the supply and another part of the population dependent on the income. With quarantine, our newly evolved habit has been curtailed, and when belief systems are frustrated, people feel denied and angry. In that sense, eating out has moved from an expensive privilege to a social norm. For those who don’t eat out much, the lack of restaurants means nothing but for others, it’s a personal disaster, a loss of their normal patterns, and they are more than upset and frustrated.
The food industry has expanded exponentially because Americans wanted it to, and now they feel that something essential to life has been taken away. But in fact, all the restrictions ask is that people go back to cooking at home like they used to not so long ago. Some are learning, to their great surprise, that it’s not only easy to make sourdough bread at home, it’s also possible to cook a chicken and some vegetables and sit down with family and enjoy it. Others are realizing how much they spend each year on prepared food and restaurants.
The restaurant business is, of course, hoping that this brief soiree into the home kitchen of the past will reverse itself as the restaurants open up, and they can probably rest easy with that expectation. Yes, belief system change and they often evolve into some other shape, but this one is probably here to stay for some time. Just look at all the people filling up the tables spread outside on the sidewalks and into the streets and see that new normal is so now so deeply held that people will risk their lives simply to have someone else do the grocery shopping and cooking.
(Also published on Medium.com)