Statistics are Harry Balzer’s life—or at least a big part of it. As vice president of The NPD Group and author of the company’s annual report, “Eating Patterns in America,” Balzer makes sense out of the endless numbers that NPD gathers from consumers on their eating behavior, both at home and away from home. Since he began working for NPD 29 years ago, he has become a national expert on food and diet trends and is one of the foodservice industry’s primary sources for unbiased market information. He appears often as an expert commentator on television news programs and has been quoted extensively in national publications. He also speaks about food trends at industry events and universities.
What do you most like about your job?
We like to think we have more information on the way people eat in this country than any other organization. That’s powerful, and I find it fascinating to be part of that.
When did NPD evolve to specialize in, among other topics, eating trends?
In 1980, NPD said it would look at everything involving the broader issue of how the world had changed in how people eat. We published the first “Eating Patterns in America” in 1984 that brought together both trends of eating in and outside of the home.
How do you find the people who are willing to provide the statistical information you need?
FAST FACTS AGE: 55EDUCATION: bachelor’s degree in business and marketing from Duquesne University in PittsburghEXPERIENCE: 29 years at The NPD GroupHOBBIES: golf, runningHOMETOWN: Pittsburgh
AGE: 55EDUCATION: bachelor’s degree in business and marketing from Duquesne University in PittsburghEXPERIENCE: 29 years at The NPD GroupHOBBIES: golf, runningHOMETOWN: Pittsburgh
NPD uses 40 different research services, automobile registrations and telephone lists. Some 4,200 people are asked daily about their restaurant visits and keep journals.
Are Americans eating out more than ever before?
We’re not eating out more on a per-person basis. All of the growth in the industry has been through takeout. We still cook a lot.
About 70 percent of all meals will be made in our home. That includes frozen pizza, but 59 percent of all main dishes are still made from scratch.
What has been the most significant change in eating-out behavior in recent years?
The years 1988 and 1989 were pivotal years in the restaurant industry, when the number of meals eaten outside of the restaurants exceeded the number of meals in the restaurants.
What’s been the most surprising fact you’ve learned from the research?
How slowly behavior changes. In 1978, the No. 1 restaurant chain in America was McDonald’s, and also in 1988 and 1998. When you leave a life stage, somebody else will come in behind you and fill your spot.
How important is it for the industry to introduce new things?
We love new things, but many restaurants don’t get repeat business after something is no longer new.
Most new things fail. The batting average for success for new products is very, very low. Don’t build a plant for just one new thing unless it will make my life easier or food costs cheaper.
What was the most successful innovation in quick service?
The drive-thru window. There’s no easier application than the power window in your car.
What big new trend do you see on the horizon?
Supermarkets are getting into the act and are preparing a lot of food. They haven’t yet figured out that you don’t want to get out of your car. The leader is Whole Foods for showing how to be everything.