When I travel home to visit my parents, I am always greeted with my favorite meal. My mother makes special arrangements which include ordering four entrees, driving the three miles to pick them up, then tastefully arranging the dishes on her dining room table. That’s because my favorite meal is not her chicken casserole but the Mediterranean pasta from Portofino’s, a nearby full-service Italian restaurant. We are a 21st century family. When I come home to visit, we order takeout.
Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, says that we are not alone. Balzer has been studying the trends in Americans’ eating habits for more than 25 years.
“We’re all looking to make the job of feeding ourselves easier,” he says. “I’m sure this goes back to the days we were catching the mastodon and serving it to the rest of the clan.”
And from mastodons to McDonald’s, the demand for convenient food is what the quick-serve industry has built itself on. In today’s market, though, the takeout kings are being challenged by some unlikely competitors. More fine-dining restaurants, full-service concepts, and even grocery stores are trying to get a piece of the takeout market by offering their own to-go programs.
“We’re all competing for the same share of stomach,” says Maria Brous, head of media relations for grocery chain Publix—a recent arrival to the takeout market. “We need to figure out how our programs separate us from our competition.”
Convenience over the Years
According to a 2006 NPD Group study, the average American eats at a restaurant about 81 times a year. In comparison, he usually eats 127 meals to go. Balzer says this all is rooted in convenience. “You have to eat about four or five times a day and each time you have to think about, ‘Where am I going to get that food?’” he says.
This push for convenience, however, is not a new trend, according to NPD findings.
Accurate data trace food trends back about 60 years, when most household food dollars were going to grocery stores. In the 1980s and 1990s that began to change and the restaurant industry’s only source of consistent growth became takeout. “Restaurants participated in a marketplace that was changing in America, which is that Americans were looking for restaurants to increasingly provide them with prepared meals,” Balzar says.