PRINCETON, NJ -- The economic recession may be causing consumers to reign in their spending, but it has not stopped most Americans from going out to eat.
Apart from the amount of money they are spending at restaurants -- something the Gallup Poll doesn't measure -- an early December Gallup Poll found 60% of Americans saying they ate dinner out at a restaurant at least once during the prior week, similar to the 64% recorded in December 2005 and down only slightly from 66% in December 2003.
The percentage of Americans eating out one or two times a week has dipped from 49% in 2005 to 42% today. However, the number of frequent restaurant patrons -- those eating dinner out three or more times a week -- hasn't diminished at all. In fact, it may have increased slightly: now 18% versus 15% in 2005.
The trends reviewed here are all from early December Gallup surveys, including the most recent 2008 results, based on Gallup's Dec. 4-7 Lifestyle Poll. Gallup also collected dining out data in April 2003 and April 2001, and eating out was more frequent in those two surveys. But seasonal differences in restaurant sales make year-to-year comparisons in the same month most appropriate for trending purposes.
Middle Income Americans Pare Dining Expenses
Gallup finds upper-income Americans dining out about as much today as they did three years ago. Also, low-income Americans are dining out just as frequently. It is middle-income adults who appear to be the ones now cutting back on this nonessential expenditure.
In December 2005, Americans in households earning $75,000 or more reported eating out an average of 1.5 times in the prior week -- identical to today -- with 76% eating out at least once, similar to the current 74%.
Those in households with less than $20,000 in annual income averaged less than one night restaurant dinner per week in 2005 (0.9 times) also identical to today, with just over four in ten low income adults in both surveys saying they ate out one or more times.
By contrast, the percentage dining out at least once has fallen from 61% to 47% among those in lower middle income households (those earning $20,000 to $29,999), and by slightly smaller amounts among those in middle income and upper middle income homes.
Generationally, the biggest shift in dining out is seen among young adults, who are no longer the most ardent restaurant goers. Whereas three years ago, 81% of adults 18 to 29 years of age reported eating out in the past week, today that figure is just 62%. However, there has been no significant decline since 2005 in reported dining out among any of the older adult groupings.
In theory, restaurant meals could be the first thing to go when Americans are looking for ways to trim their spending in a recession. But that doesn't account for the fact that eating out may be an integral part of Americans' social and family lives, and hard to give up.
Whatever the reason, it appears Americans are largely maintaining their pre-recession pace of dining out. That doesn't mean they are spending as much money at restaurants -- they could be choosing less expensive places, searching for early-bird specials, or simply ordering less food -- but the good news for the restaurant industry is that there has been relatively little recent decline in the number of customers for them to serve.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 4-7, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.