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 firstname.lastname@example.org