Restaurants Feel the Bite Of Stay-at-Home Moms

By JANET ADAMY
March 14, 2008; Page B1

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. 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.


Anna Chavez watches her daughter, Mia, at a Bennigan's in Frisco, Texas
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.


Seven-year-old Sofia Chavez, left, and her sister Mia, 4, dig through a toy chest at a Bennigan's
To offset the flattening of women entering the work force, some restaurants are trying new strategies. Metromedia Restaurant's Bennigan's is testing offering children's books, Etch A Sketch toys and hand-held videogames to appeal to women who bring their children. The chain is also creating salads and healthier combo meals for the moms.

Last year, KFC, the chicken chain owned by Yum Brands Inc., launched the Web site www.bringbackdinner.com to appeal to mothers who want to eat at home with their families. The site allows users to print dinner placemats and word games as well as custom design an at-home dinner meal using KFC's chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, green beans and chocolate-chip cake.

Management at KFC has been watching the leveling off of women in the work force for a few years and trying to develop strategies to adapt to it, says James O'Reilly, chief marketing officer for KFC. "We know that moms, when they're home, do spend time online trying to find dinner solutions," Mr. O'Reilly says. "That Web site is tailor-made for that."

The increase in at-home meal preparation doesn't necessarily mean people are cooking more meals from scratch. The success of Whole Foods Market Inc., with its large, attractive sections devoted to prepared foods, has prompted mainstream supermarkets to offer higher-quality ready-to-eat dishes that customers fashion into meals in their kitchens. Packaged-food companies are also offering more products aimed at consumers who want to whip up meals at home that require little, if any, true culinary effort.


Some chains are trying to combat what Metromedia's Mr. Dover calls the "foodie phenomenon," or the popularity of television cooking shows that have made it cool to be a home chef. Bennigan's is pushing its lightly battered Monte Cristo sandwich because it can't be replicated "unless you have a fryer in your house," Mr. Dover says.

For one-income families pinched by gas prices, "convenience may now mean going to the grocery store and buying a bunch of meals at once, instead of stopping at the restaurant at night," says Doug Brooks, chairman of Brinker International Inc., which owns Chili's Grill & Bar. The company's Maggiano's Little Italy chain recently added nationwide delivery, and Brinker is trying to shorten the time it takes to eat at some of its restaurants to appeal to guests seeking a quicker meal.

Restaurant executives say they don't see a sales rebound on the horizon anytime soon, though they hope the government's planned economic stimulus payments will give eateries a small boost. Craig Miller, chairman of Ruth's Chris Steak House Inc., says that he also hopes the retirement of the baby boomers will help offset the leveling off of women in the work force because baby boomers will be looking for a relaxing dining experience.

"You don't accomplish that when you dine at home," Mr. Miller says. "Someone always gets ordained as the worker."

Write to Janet Adamy at janet.adamy@wsj.com

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Comment by Randy Caparoso on March 15, 2008 at 8:30am
Back in the late '80s I got to know the L.A. restaurant scene a little bit, and one thing that Wolfgang Puck once said has always stuck on my mind: that quality service, in even the most famous celebrity chef driven restaurants, is more important than quality of food.

Not that Puck was saying he doesn't put out quality, because obviously he does. But in his mind, if a guest comes to Spago and has incredible food but mediocre service, the guest might come back in six months or a year. But if the guest has just so-so food and incredible service, the guest is likely to come back sooner because he at least knows he'll be taken care of even if he's not sure about the food.

But if the guest has both incredible food and incredible service, then the likelihood of the guest coming back tomorrow or once a week suddenly goes through the roof.

I was fortunate, in 1988, to begin work with another talented celebrity chef/owner who also believed in the same thing, and we together with a small team of principals all on the same page we were able to open over 15 successful, high end restaurants over the next 10 years. "Service is more important than food" was a mantra." This is what we drummed into FOH heads, and it didn't bother BOH because they always knew that if they put out quality stuff the FOH would have their backs, and together we'd kill as a team. Works like a charm.
Comment by Andy Swingley on March 15, 2008 at 4:12am
Alright I am ready for you to pile on to this comment but I gotta say it and you will call me stupid....maybe

So what you are telling me is that you can put out a mediocre plate of food....but do it with exceptional service and your sales will build? I thought people came to a restaurant to eat and that service was the touch that really created the repeat guest? If that is the case why do we have chefs in the BOH? Wouldn't the chefs be in the FOH whipping up great service? I know that it is ultimately a combination of great food and great service that keeps a restaurant awesome but if you had to go somewhere first to work on a struggling restaurant which would you fix first? FOH or BOH.....(we should name an online social network that....it has potential!)

Alright, Alright let the lashing begin...
Comment by LSUBEER on March 14, 2008 at 10:58pm
BULLSEYE Ya'll. I recently gave up control of my bar to a newly appointed manager. This move was done because with the split focus between my bar and restaurant, service started to suffer. I have gotten my servers back on track, but now my bar is sufferring again. It's a never ending battle of focus I guess, but I get it. My sales are up from the same time last year almost 25% a week....its's the service stupid!!
Comment by Randy Caparoso on March 14, 2008 at 4:03pm
Hallelujah and amen, Joe... is anybody listening? We eat often at McDonald's, for Pete's sake, not for the quality of food but because we can get it fast and cheap...

Talk about non-rocket science...
Comment by Joe Archuleta on March 14, 2008 at 3:58pm
...in the real estate business it is about location, location, location! Welll.....duh.....in the restuarant business it is about the service, service, and service! I can put up with some not too good food if the service is timely. It's how I am treated and handled. I would like to get my ham and eggs seven minutes turn time as was set by our founding father when he started the chain and he was personally involved. Well, today....it takes a little longer than that providing you are given the menu and your order is taken. I preach to managers that their focus should be on acknowledging the guests when they walk in and get them seated and properly train hostess, waitstaff to do the same. The manager should not spend his/her time being buyers and entertaining every salesperson that comes in with a hot deal plus the camcorder that comes with it. Stay tune......diff subj now....
Comment by Randy Caparoso on March 14, 2008 at 3:43pm
My goodness, what do we do? Well, I guess the news isn't as bad for the restaurants who are maintaining their competitive edge.

I was talking to a longtime chef/friend over breakfast just yesterday about the usual things -- food cost/quality control/falling numbers (and "help!") -- and the subject of service also came up (I admit, I brought it up). Obviously the restaurant industry is headed into a little bit of a shake-out, but we can't help but think that for a lot of multi-units the issue really isn't food quality, costs or menu updating, because those are things that they're really good about managing.

Really, where a lot of multi-units are going wrong is that their *service* really sucks. I mean, really and truly suck-eee -- ornery, high attitude, just plain sloppy and *slow* FOH staffs. If anything, the essence of casual, value dining is speed and efficiency, and many of these big companies just aren't putting their money into where they probably need it: in training and management that can execute fast, timely, caring service. Obviously, they don't pay managers much (especially when time's are tough), and the managers they retain just don't know how or don't care to teach fast, timely, caring service.

Where do working moms and increasingly harried businessmen go for casual dining? They go to the restaurants that can get them their foods nice and hot and on time so they can get the heck out!

So our guess: yes, there's going to be an industry shake-out, but the real battles within will not so much involve menus, pricing and cost controls as it will plain ol' service. You either deliver decent service (no one ever said casual restaurant service had to be "great"), or the busy moms and businessmen are walking...

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