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Restaurant Dining

According to the National Restaurant Association, in 2006 Americans will spend more than half a trillion dollars at nearly 925,000 restaurants, the greatest level of business ever. The association reports that over the next decade, more than half the food budget of the average American household will be spent outside the home. The 1955 figure stood at 25 percent.

Restaurant eating fits in with today’s busy lifestyle in America. Given the costs of retail food and groceries, restaurant food may well turn out to be cheaper, especially for families in which members want different items or types of foods, an almost impossible task for a family cook. Even when not strictly cheaper than home cooking, restaurants, which have made a genuine effort to keep prices down over the last few years, save consumers precious time. Even small American communities have a wide range of restaurant choices: Mexican, Italian, Thai, contemporary, pizza, seafood, or just plain American comfort food.

The restaurant industry is a difficult one; customer loyalty can never be assumed, chefs and workers are difficult to find and keep. The sit-down dinner restaurants that survive and prosper are often those that are run like well-oiled machines by professionals working with computer models. Frequently, these restaurants offer excellent value on mainstream dishes and make their money on beverages, elaborate desserts, side orders and add-ons.

The United States Food and Drug Administration has reported it believes restaurant eating to be a major cause of obesity, which stands at epidemic proportions in the United States. Large portions are thought to be to blame; nevertheless, customers will quickly turn on a restaurant that cuts its portion size. Municipalities like New York City have recently begun to pressure restaurants to reduce trans-fats, thought to have negative health impact, and to publish nutritional information on their menus. At the same time, restaurant industry surveys have shown that many efforts to add healthier items to the menus in major chain operations have failed, resulting in large-scale customer dissatisfaction.

Though more than seven out of ten eating and drinking places in the United States are single-unit independent operations, with usually fewer than 20 employees, chain and theme restaurants are an immense presence in the country. The largest fast food chains in terms of units are McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbucks, and Domino’s. Other large fast-food chains include Long John Silver’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, Chick fil-A, Boston Market, Quiznos, Papa John’s, Little Caesar’s, Panda Express, Panera Bread, Dunkin Donuts, and Krispy Kreme.

Casual dinner restaurants are among the most prosperous segment in the United States. These restaurants generally serve alcoholic beverages, and offer both lunch and dinner items in the $15 to $25 range. The largest national casual dining chains are Applebee’s, Red Lobster (seafood), Outback Steakhouse (Australian theme), Chili’s Grill and Bar, Olive Garden (Italian), T.G.I. Friday’s, Ruby Tuesday, Romano’s Macaroni Grill (Italian), Hooters (waitresses in skimpy cheerleader outfits), The Cheesecake Factory (fancy plate presentation, architecture and lush cheesecakes), Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon, O’Charley’s, Red Robin, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Pizzeria Uno Chicago Bar and Grill.

Other prominent national chains using a range of concepts include Benihana (Japanese steakhouse), California Pizza Kitchen, Bob Evans (family restaurants), Smokey Jones BBQ, Denny’s (the largest full-service family chain), IHOP (pancakes), Cracker Barrel (country food and gift shop), Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. Local and regional chains operate restaurants using similar formulas.

For all these restaurant concepts, takeout food is a growing segment.

These chains have an edge over independent restaurants in that patrons know exactly what to expect at any given restaurant, anywhere in the country. They also have the advantage of economies of scale and national advertising. Their careful market research tells them what the public wants to eat, why, when, in what atmosphere, and for how much.

Demographic trends favor the expansion of all kinds of restaurants in the United States. The chains lead the pack, but small ethnic restaurants are often very successful because they are family run and can keep costs down; they also frequently have a defined ethnic base to serve. Independent breakfast and lunch restaurants and sandwich shops can also be successful, especially in smaller communities that do not have competition from fast-food operations. High-end gourmet restaurants have much more difficulty just staying alive; they tend to come and go with some rapidity.