Saturday, October 27, 2007

Come to my Restaurant.....because you've got to eat!!!

I pulled this piece off my MSN homepage a few days ago. I found it quite interesting and wanted to share my thoughts. I've paraphrased the article to fit it in this post.

Is eating out cheaper than cooking?
By Christan Science Monitor

By the time he's driven to the farmers market, bought the organic veggies and spent an hour cooking a meal for himself and his wife, Mark Chernesky figures he's spent $30.

That's why recently, after fighting rush hour, the Atlanta multimedia coordinator dashed in to Figo, a pasta place, for hand-stuffed ravioli slathered with puttanesca sauce. "I'll get out of here for $17 plus tip," he said.

Crunch the numbers, and across America the refrain is the same: Eating out is the new eating in. Even with wages stagnant, time-strapped workers are abandoning the family kitchen in droves.

Restaurateurs are absorbing rising food and gas costs to keep menu prices low.

For the first time this year, American restaurants will bring in above a half-trillion dollars in total sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. The U.S. has about 925,000 restaurants, and at least 8,000 are added each year.

"The restaurant industry has become more essential to consumer daily lifestyles than at any point in history," said Hudson Riehle, the restaurant association's senior vice president of research.

The biggest reason for the shift in her lifestyle: grocery-store prices. Just the other day, she paid $8 for a package of chicken wings and was shocked that they cost so much.

Despite all the money Americans spend on eating out, restaurants' profit margins are below 5%, the National Restaurant Association says. A dearth of new cooks and waiters has meant the end of many eateries. But cutthroat competition among restaurants has helped them produce good food at low prices, experts say.

"Restaurants aren't winning on their sophistication of pricing -- they're winning on their ability to deliver value," said Mark Bergen, a pricing specialist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. "Simply put, restaurants are more efficient than you are."

Restaurant food costs went up more than 5% from the previous year in 2003 and 2004. Yet entrees stayed at much the same prices.

There are definatly two ways for me to examine this article. Once from the perspective of the restaurant, secondly as your average consumer. As an average consumer, with knowledge of food prices based on my job experiances, I am blown away by the markup on food, especially non-perishable food at the supermarket. I don’t like to shop at the supermarket because it irks me just how high the markups can go. Prices on meat and fish are doubled at least. Most non-perishable or dry goods are marked up on the order of 10X. At a restaurant on the other hand I understand the depth and scope of what goes into a meals pricing. I am happy to have a server, bartender, cooks, dishwashers, dishes, flatware, glasses, a bevy of condiments and beverages waiting at my beacon.

Why doesn’t everyone just go out to eat? I think there will be a considerable shift in the near future towards dining out. The prices of food aren’t going to reverse and go down. Food isn’t going to become less perishable. People aren’t going to find more free time, and energy to cook for themselves. Over the past hundred years there are a lot of house chores that have been outsourced. For instance, auto repair, you could go to the auto parts store, buy the parts, educate yourself in car repair, and finally fix your car yourself. You don’t though, you take it to someone with parts, and tools, and education that you lack. In the future we will think the same way about food. You might have the opportunity to visit a grocery store, buy perishable food, learn how to cook, find the time and hopefully an equipped kitchen to work in where you can make dinner. Or you will go to a restaurant just as simply put as taking your car to a professional shop.

The less and less people cook for themselves, the better we off we are in the restaurant. I am not talking about cooking as in entertaining a dinner party, nor is the restaurant I refer to fine dining. Rather cooking and eating revolve around acquiring calories. How will the restaurant keep prices manageable? I think that restaurants hold an inventory of both food and equipment that is far superior to that of any home kitchen. As this division continues to widen it will become more and more economical for people to dine out. The more people that dine out will directly affect the restaurants bottom line, and as we say in the business, sales cure all ills.


rockandroller said...

Until we get the number and variety of a place such as NYC, going out to eat all the time is definitely not cheaper than cooking at home. We spend much more when we go out to eat than we ever do when we cook at home. Maybe fast food is cheap, but we don't eat that.

For the "average" consumer who buys a lot of highly processed foods at the big-box grocery store, sure, maybe it is cheaper to go out to eat; especially to the chains where, if you're careful to only eat half your portion, you've gotten two meals out of the visit (which is easy most places as they give you a TON of food).

But for those people like me who are more informed consumers, who cook a lot from scratch and rarely visit a conventional grocery (and when we do, it's not to purchase processed foods), it's definitely cheaper to cook at home. Combine that with the fact that I know when I go shopping for my food for home, I am supporting local farmers, buying milk and butter to consume and cook with that doesn't have added hormones, buying produce that wasn't grown with pesticides, buying meat that is locally raised and processed, buying sausages that are homemade and much leaner than those in the grocery, as well as putting money into the pockets of all these people, which helps drive the local economy, and going out to eat becomes more of an occasional luxury and often a necessity when we are too tired or busy to cook or when we just want a treat.

If we even want to come close to the cost of a meal at home when we are out, we'd have to go completely without alcohol and only drink water and then only have entrees - no apps, no extra things on the side, no desserts, etc. And even then, we're eating chicken that's likely raised and processed via giant factory farms, which I never eat at home, we're eating veggies which were grown with pesticides, which I never eat at home, etc.

I mean, hell, we don't even use Teflon pans anymore at home. We learned how to properly cook things in stainless and cast iron and completely got off Teflon 2 years ago now. But I know when we go out to eat, they're using it, and I'm probably ingesting those chemicals. I think limiting one's exposure to all these chemicals is wise, from the Teflon to the pesticides to the growth hormones, etc.

Why doesn't everyone just go out to eat? I can't afford it, monetarily or from a health perspective.

Michael Walsh said...

I agree on almost everything that you say. You are well educated about healthfull food, and healthfull cooking as well as the personal time and finances to choose to eat the healthiest food available. I make some of these same discisions for my own eating habits, but i think they are quite elitist ideas. I find the whole organic thing, the slow food thing, and the food forum to have this narrow minded elistist mentatlity.

If you think about the average american family, both parents work, two cars, 2.5 children, private school, middle-class, middle-income situation. I doubt that this family has the ability to pick and choose the highest quality food, nor does anyone in the family have the time to cook 2-3 meals a day for 4 people. This is why i can't stand on my high horse and condemn pesticides, and caged chickens, and microwave meals. While they might be wrong in essence, there are alot of people who depend on inexpensive food.

You are seeing more and more responsible restaurant on the other hand. Affordable places, take-out places, more accessable places that will market more to middle-income families, and in turn educate them on health and food, which they are likely to apply to their homecooking.

i still think in 50 yrs homecooking, home kitchens, and huge grocery stores will be very rare. Think back 100 yrs, people cooked at home to consume calories and survive, 50 yrs later cooking became cool, kitchens and appliances became cool, restaurants and eating became cool. 50 yrs later, now people are crazy over chef's and restaurants, and eating out. Another 50 yrs, and we will see???

rockandroller said...

I know there are a lot of people that depend on convenience foods, I did too at one time. Arguments can be made regarding "cheap" food and food for people on a budget on either side of the fence. It just depends what you buy and if you know how to cook. Rice and beans as a meal for your family is a lot cheaper than even mcdonald's, any way you slice it, especially if you buy dried beans and cook them yourself, which doesn't require time, just a crock pot, and rice by the 50 pound bag.

I know what you mean about elitist. I fall into that camp myself sometimes but it honestly comes from a place of wanting people to eat the way we're supposed to eat as homo sapiens and in a way that supports local and sustainable businesses than it is an "I'm better than you are" position. But it's hard when I'm standing in the grocery with my healthy food that I will cook from scratch which will stretch for a long time (e.g. flour and yeast to make my own bread) and the woman in front of me has 2 loaves of Wonder Bread.

There are indeed a lot of people who depend on inexpensive food, but they are buying the wrong food and their money could go even further if they weren't spending it on processed food. Good discussion!