The slumping economy has changed America's attitudes toward eating out, and that has caused the country's massive restaurant industry to adapt -- and fast.
Many Americans are now budgeting for meals at restaurants more carefully, but people still have to eat, say Nina and Tim Zagat, the founders of the popular Zagat restaurant surveys.
Statistics from Zagat indicate that 33% of restaurant patrons across the country are paying more attention to prices and that 28% of diners are switching to cheaper restaurants. Here's a bigger blow to restaurants' bottom lines: Approximately 20% of diners polled are cutting out booze, appetizers and desserts.
Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr started noticing the change in customers' habits over the holidays. "We saw people drinking less and ordering less wine," Starr said. "And they're going out more toward the end of the week."
Still, despite Americans' worries about the economy, "consumers remain strongly desirous of continued -- and even increased -- use of restaurants," according to the National Restaurant Association's 2009 industry forecast.
Statistics from the association indicate that 45% of adults say restaurants are an essential part of their lifestyles.
"Going out to restaurants is still an important part of people's lives," Nina Zagat said, "and people are still going to go out."
Restaurateurs gone wild
Down but not out, restaurateurs are getting creative to keep the customers coming back.
"Restaurants need to be ready for customers who feel tired, overwhelmed and tapped out financially," said Maria Caranfa, the director of Mintel Menu Insights, which tracks restaurant menus across the country.
"Every business move that operators make to enhance their competitive edge will matter, whether it's cutting costs, rethinking menu pricing or implementing new marketing efforts," according to the National Restaurant Association's forecast.
One of Starr's tactics: Just be nicer to the customers.
"Give a little bit more, and hopefully (customers) will come back more" when the economy picks up again, Starr explained.