The average American consumer has been evolving for quite some time, and Nation’s Restaurant News’ upcoming special report reinforces the most crucial aspect of that change: There no longer is a typical American consumer. According to projections of the 2010 U.S. Census by demographic-trends expert Peter Francese, Americans are becoming older, more diverse and increasingly clustered in bustling and multiethnic regions of the country, which affects their dining out behavior and how restaurateurs must adapt to the new consumer landscape.
But as Francese shared his data of shifting demographics and household income with Nation’s Restaurant News, he reassured operators that they need not wait for census results to be published to get a better idea of changes to consumer behavior that they could address. The answers are already out in dining rooms across the nation, he said.
“The way in which any restaurateur can keep up [with the changing American consumer] is to constantly be in touch with their customers -- their specific customers,” he said. “I eat out a great deal, and I’m always stunned by how seldom I get a questionnaire. Comment cards are absolutely essential, and if you can get e-mail addresses, you can query them back for demographics, but the key thing is to constantly be in touch with your customers to see how well the value proposition worked for them.”
In addition to highlighting Francese’s consumer trends research in the March 22 special report, NRN also canvassed the restaurants of the United States to ask operators how they’ve seen their existing customers adjust to a changing country and a still-turbulent economy. NRN’s staff put forth the question: What’s been the most noticeable change in your customers’ behavior during the economic downturn of the past few years?
“The most obvious behavioral change is that consumers want top-quality, fine-dining food in very informal and casual restaurants. They don’t want white tablecloths and stiff service and are willing to give up dining in grand rooms in exchange for saving some money and having more fun while dining out.” -- Shelley Lindgren and Victoria Libin, co-owners of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco
“The most surprising and welcome behavioral change is our guests’ increasingly open desire for more stimulation, either in challenging menu items, more obscure wines and varietals, and old-school cocktails with a less sweet, more bitter and herbal flavor profile. We are selling more offal than ever. The interaction between service staff has turned into more of an interactive exchange of enthusiasm, knowledge and adventure.” -- Garrett Harker, proprietor of Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks in Boston
“The most surprising behavioral change is the way people are coming out -- at the last minute. Between eating at the bar and calling at the last minute for reservations on the weekends, the pattern of business is very different. It makes planning both from a supply and a staff point of view more challenging than it was before the recession.” -- Nancy Laird, owner of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham, N.J.
“Guests have become extraordinarily price-sensitive and extremely forthcoming with their displeasure if they feel they have not received appropriate value. Last night, for example, a guest who was here for the first time for All You Can Eat, and who had received a hearty first portion of food but not yet received a 'refill' simply because the kitchen was extremely busy, immediately accused the server of “fraud.' It was not always this way in the restaurant business. ... The leap toward litigious terminology is a new phenomenon. ... This of course makes perfect sense given the economy, and we have come up with recession specials like All You Can Eat to address those needs. Ironically, it is the folks who take advantage of our specials and our many discounts and promotions that seem to be the most extreme in their reactions if they feel the discount or value was not sufficient or not properly communicated.” -- John Shaw, operating partner and chief operating officer of Hill Country in New York
“We’ve seen a definite drop-off in add-on beverages, particularly at lunch. The coffee customer in the morning is continuing to buy coffee, and at lunch people are still buying sandwiches, soups and salads, and they’re still getting the bread with it. But they seem to be cutting back on drinks. We’re selling the same number of sandwiches, and our soup sales are up, but add-on drinks seem to be suffering. Otherwise, things are still the same in terms of mix.” -- Ed Frechette, senior vice president of marketing for Au Bon Pain in Boston
“In regard to the 'great recession,' it’s all about perception. Customers look for any kind of bargain, and they are willing to spend money as long as the perception is that they are getting a deal. Patrons tend not to want to buy bottles of wine, or if they do, it will not be anything 'expensive.' They would prefer to buy wine by the glass, as it gives them a sense of control, even if in the end they pay more for four glasses than they would have for a whole bottle.” -- David Drake, chef of Alice’s Restaurant in Lake Hopatcong, N.J.
“I see that our patrons are really taking their time to enjoy the dining experience. They aren’t as rushed to get out the door as they used to be. It’s like they are enjoying the simple pleasure of a good meal.” -- Walter Pisano, chef of Tulio Ristorante in Seattle
“I’ve seen the neuroses of uncertainty. They have trouble committing to anything except at that moment. We’re getting fewer reservations and a lot more walk-ins. We do a lot of holiday business, and we saw that they’d make the reservations -- on Mother’s Day we’d open the books a month in advance and sell out in five days, but the percentage of no-shows is going up. We took to taking credit card numbers [to hold the reservations], which has reduced that dramatically.” -- Gerry Kingen, head of Salty’s, which has two units in Seattle and one in Oregon