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Alex

The Paradox of American Restaurants

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The quality and variety of food in the U.S. has never been better. The business seems to be struggling. What’s really going on?

 

Full article, in The Atlantic

 

The author posits four theories:

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1. The good news is there are too many great restaurants to choose from. The bad news is…the same thing.

2. The middle class of restaurants is really struggling … unless they specialize in breakfast.

3. Takeout is taking over.

4. It’s ultimately about rich city-dwellers—especially in California.

 

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Yes.   There are tons of restaurants but lots of turnover.  Rent and wages are too high to not be full most nights.   While restaurants have been multiplying, grocery stores have also been upping their game.  Rotisserie chicken and Trader Joe's make it easy and more markets have huge salad and hot food bars.

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When I go into a Friendly/Applebee/Ruby Tuesday/TGIF's it is mostly Sr Citizens...occasionally w grandkids. Looks like a dying sector unless another generation "ages-in" to the customer base.

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I think it boils down to this quote from last paragraph in the article: "The price gap between grocery bills and restaurant checks has never been higher."

 

As much as I love eating at restaurants, I often find myself thinking, "I could have made this meal myself at home for a tenth of the price." Sometimes I'm also thinking I could have made it better or the food would have been served hotter. Sometimes the price gap is even more. I never order pasta marinara out. $10 or $15 for something I can practically guarantee will not be served on a preheated plate or pasta bowl and costs me pennies to make? No thanks. Plus when you ordered this kind of pasta in the past, it would come with garlic bread and salad included in the meal. Everything is a la carte now.

 

Also even years ago, I could prepare steak dinners at a fraction of the cost the restaurants want, so the food costs seem to not be a big factor.

 

And yes, @pastrygirl! about grocers upping their game. The only salad bars I know still left in this town are at the higher end grocers and you pay by the pound. My local Harris Teeter has a nice one, as well as an "Asian bar" and cooked pizza by the slice, as well as offering fried and rotisserie chicken with several different seasoning options and sides you can take home and nuke, like mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. The deli also has some very good and affordable sliced and assembled to order subs.

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8 hours ago, pastrygirl said:

Yes.   There are tons of restaurants but lots of turnover.  Rent and wages are too high to not be full most nights.   

Yet, much of the reason for the turnover is that wages are too low. It's an ongoing problem for restaurateurs that wages squeeze already-thin margins, but cost of living in many cities makes it almost impossible to live on what a line cook makes. Even high-end restaurants, the kind any ambitious cook would want to work for, are frequently finding it difficult to keep staff because it's a losing proposition. 

 

Competition from non-restaurant players, and the effects of lower grocery prices, were also main points of the annual Baum + Whiteman restaurant trends report this year. 

 

 

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I l-o-v-e salad bars.  Amazingly enough, there's a small café in my nearby town that has a wonderful salad bar...so many choices that change often, everything is super fresh and kept cold.  This is in a town of about 2,000!  And it's available every day after 11AM six days a week (Sundays it's a buffet). 

This restaurant is always busy, full of locals, the food is very good and it's quite inexpensive.  I feel lucky.

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And add to the mix that Millennials are now the largest generational subgroup and their spending habits are different. They value experience over stuff. They demand transparency in their food. They expect it to be properly (ethically and locally) sourced. They expect it to be fresh. And yes, Blue Apron and the like are teaching Millennials that cooking doesn't have to be difficult, which is showing a new generation that fresh food is better than 95% of the crap you get at restaurants which has sat in a steam table or under a heat lamp.

 

Yes, I follow these trends very, very closely since I'm preparing to open an "expensive" restaurant. And I believe I check all of the survivor's boxes ;)

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