Restaurants, which have been slumping for two years because of a slew of short-term factors, are waking up to a worrisome long-term trend: The number of harried working moms isn't growing the way it was.
For decades, the steady increase of working women was a boon to restaurants. The combination of women having less time to cook and households having a second income led families to eat at restaurants more frequently.
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From 1948 to 1999, the percentage of women in the work force climbed from 32.7% to 60%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since 1999, though, that five-decade increase has leveled off, with the percentage of women in the work force down slightly at 59.2% as of January. The result is less money in the family budget.
"The young women in the 2000s started saying, 'You know what? I can stay at home and watch my children,'" says Harry Balzer, a vice president at research firm NPD Group who studies how Americans eat. "If you start moderating income, you have to moderate the food costs."
Indeed, the number of restaurant visits that Americans make annually has flattened out, and consumers have increased the number of meals they make at home. Last year, 207 restaurant meals were purchased per person, down from a peak of 211 in 2001 according to NPD. Meanwhile, Americans prepared 861 meals at home in 2007, compared with 817 in 2002, NPD says."It's easy to blame the gasoline or to blame adjustable-rate mortgages or the uncertainty of the political landscape," says Clay Dover, president of Metromedia Restaurant Group. "But there are also some longer-term pieces that have been in the works for some time that have really taken us here."
Bree Batchen, a 30-year-old Chicago resident, worked as a retail buyer until shortly before she had her second child last year. Now that she's staying at home and has the time, she says, she has been trying to cook more meals. "It's a necessity," adds the vegetarian, who makes vegetable and rice dishes. "I don't really enjoy cooking."Another small but striking shift is that men are whipping up more suppers. They prepared 18% of at-home dinners in 2007, compared with 14% in 2003, according to NPD. The growing popularity of fancy home grills may be linked to that increase.
To offset the flattening of women entering the work force, some restaurants are trying new strategies.