Although the writing has been on the wall for a few years, restaurateurs only now are starting to comprehend the message: The way consumers use restaurants is changing in a lasting way, according to The NPD Group’s 23rd annual “Eating Patterns in America” report.
The popularity of both quick service and breakfast continues to grow, and snacking now occurs more often in midmorning than at night, NPD found. Brown-bag lunches also are on the rise, and supermarkets are entrenched in the foodservice business.
“The current economic condition just exposes what’s been going on for the last [six or seven] years,” said Harry Balzer, vice president of the Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. “We’re just starting to notice. People are not using restaurants less, they’re using restaurants differently.”
The total number of meals purchased at restaurants has not increased since 2000, but where consumers are eating out has shifted, according to NPD. Seventy-seven percent of all restaurant meals now come from fast-food restaurants, a new high. Visits to full-service restaurants, where servers are relied upon, are on the wane.
Changes in consumers’ eating patterns are impacting all dayparts, but the biggest shift is occurring at dinner, NPD found. According to NPD, the industry’s dinner business, both on- and off-premise, has not grown since 2000. Instead, consumers are buying more ready-to-eat meals from supermarkets.
When consumers do visit a restaurant for dinner, their top choice is quick service. Nonetheless, the segment is not increasing its share of the dinner occasion as it is at breakfast and lunch. The segment’s share of dinner meals has been largely flat since 2002, capturing a 64-percent to 65-percent share. In contrast, quick service’s share of breakfast has been steadily growing since 2002. In the year ended in February, the segment captured an 83-percent share of breakfast, up from 78 percent in 2002. Quick-service lunch has grown just slightly in the past five years, capturing a 77-percent share in the year ended in February, up from 75 percent in 2002.
Big changes are happening during the breakfast daypart, too. Consumers who once skipped breakfast are now eating more in the morning, and what they choose to eat is more healthful, according to NPD. Nearly half of all breakfast items consumed are labeled as better-for-you items, NPD found. In addition, while consumers are still interested in purchasing products with reduced ingredients, such as lower sodium or fat, now they are also buying more products with added nutritional ingredients, such as probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids.
More than 70 percent of breakfasts still are consumed in-home, but those purchased at restaurants increasingly are eaten off-premise. According to NPD, for every breakfast eaten in a restaurant, two are eaten outside of the restaurant. Also, more of those eaten outside of restaurants are being eaten in cars.
“The breakfast market is not growing on sit-down, [it’s] exclusively takeout,” Balzer said. “[Consumers want a] quick, easy-to-consume and inexpensive meal.”
Ready-to-eat cereal remains the most popular in-home breakfast item, but consumers are not eating more of it. Instead, NPD found, consumers are eating more yogurt and nutrition bars for their morning meal. Because these are not filling foods, a growing number of consumers also are purchasing additional items from restaurants later in the morning, NPD found.
That second breakfast is, at least in part, driving a shift in the way Americans snack, Balzer said. While consumers aren’t eating more snacks, they are eating different types of snacks at different times. Morning snacking is on the rise, while evening snacking is decreasing. Popcorn and chips once eaten later in the day are being replaced by more healthful items, such as such as fruit, nuts, seeds, yogurt and nutrition bars.
Restaurants have been capturing more of consumers’ snack occasions and are helping to alter consumers’ definition of snacks, NPD found.
“The word ‘snack’ is expanding,” Balzer said. “Beverages, hamburgers, sandwiches, wraps [are] now called a snack.”
Although a lack of time is among the main factors pushing Americans to eat more lunches away from home, these meals are not coming from restaurants. The real change at lunch is that more consumers are bringing their midday meal from home, NPD found.
Sandwiches remain the No. 1 item carried in brown bags, but the number of microwavable meals and yogurts is on the rise, NPD found. In addition, a growing number of those sandwiches are not made at home, but are frozen or from restaurants, NPD found. When consumers do eat lunch out, the data reveal that fast-casual restaurants are getting more of consumers’ visits.
Despite being financially squeezed, consumers are not cooking at home more, NPD found. Instead, frozen meals are continuing to replace restaurant meals for in-home dinners.
“There is this blurring of where do I get my prepared meal,” Balzer said. “Supermarkets have become more in the foodservice business.”
Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix is among the growing number of upscale and mainstream supermarkets to benefit from expanding prepared food offerings and having restaurantlike dining areas. Last year the 936-unit chain, which has locations in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee, opened a 4,500-square-foot prepared-foods section at its Lake Mary Collection, Fla., store and a 3,500-square-foot section at its new Publix GreenWise Market in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Since launching the new departments, traffic has increased at both lunch and dinner, the company said.
“The prepared foods offer every member of the family options at a one-stop location,” said Maria Brous, a spokeswoman for Publix. “As customers become [more] time-starved…[have] hectic lifestyles, supermarkets are providing a service that meets needs that haven’t been met [by restaurants].”
Success prompted Publix to open two other GreenWise Markets in Florida and to actively look at opportunities for more prepared-food sections at new and remodeled Publix stores, Brous said.
While discerning fads from long-term trends is not easy, some restaurant operators have caught on to the behavioral changes underway.
In response to the increased traffic occurring at the local supermarket’s prepared-foods department, Icebox Cafe in Miami Beach, Fla., which serves new American cuisine, recently began offering an affordable family takeout menu featuring dishes like a nine-serving turkey meatloaf and a four-serving vegetable lasagna both, priced at $18, as well as side dishes like roasted potatoes and roasted vegetables at $6 per quart.
“We thought [it was] a great way to do something that was affordable,” said Icebox general manager Ines Chattas of the new to-go offerings.
Icebox customers seem to agree. Chattas said the restaurant is selling about 30 to 40 of the dinners each week.
To meet consumers’ growing desire for both more breakfast choices and healthy options, in July Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Donuts  launched its DDSMART menu. Led by the Egg White Flatbread sandwiches, the menu features items that have at least one of the following criteria: 25 percent fewer calories; 25 percent less sugar, fat, saturated fat or sodium than comparable fare; and/or contain ingredients that are nutritionally beneficial.
“[DDSMART is just] one of the ways a large group of consumers are using our restaurants differently,” said Dunkin’ executive chef Stan Frankenthaler. “We listened to our customers [and they said] now we need a different breakfast choice.”
No hard statistics are available just yet, but the approximately three-month-old menu has been extremely well-received across all demographics, Frankenthaler said.
While it’s easy to assume that consumers’ new behaviors are temporary and will pass when the economy picks up, the driving force behind these changes are long-term economic factors, such as the lack of growth of women entering the workforce and prolonged, lower household incomes, not the current economic climate, Balzer said.
“This is about moderating food costs without forcing [consumers] to cook more,” Balzer said. “There will be no recession in eating. There will be winners and losers.”