One of my first jobs out of university involved extensive travel, by myself. I spent the better part of two years on the road, so I ate alone — a lot. It felt a little awkward in the beginning, especially when I visited a full-service restaurant (FSR). In the early days, I would bury my nose in a book to avoid eye contact, but eventually I began to embrace the experience.
When I read an article recently in The Wall Street Journal about dining alone (The Pleasures of Eating Alone, Oct. 2, 2019), which referenced the concept of ‘mindful eating,’ it led me to think about my personal experience. But, being in the data business, I also thought, is dining alone a trend? Is it on the rise? Can restaurateurs benefit from this? After delving into the data, I’ve determined the answer to each of these questions is a resounding “yes.”
According to the latest CREST data from The NPD Group, not only is dining alone a trend, it’s a big one, representing more than 40 per cent of all restaurant visits. Over the last five years, growth is almost double that of the total market.
If you follow Statistics Canada population data, this isn’t a surprise. According to the 2016 census, the number of one-person households has been trending up since 2001. At 28 per cent of all households, this share is greater than couples with children or couples without children.
Almost half of all dining-alone occasions originate at home. In other words, the majority of these occasions take place while we’re on the way somewhere else, usually to work or to run errands. Meanwhile, 80 per cent of these occasions take place at QSRs and two thirds of them involve either breakfast or a snack occasion. Less than 10 per cent take place in FSR.
Similar to the rest of foodservice, delivery is key to this market. Representing just three per cent of occasions, it accounted for about one third of growth this past year. Delivery can take away the stigma of dining alone in a restaurant, while still allowing someone to enjoy a quality restaurant meal. Alternatively, people who are dining on their own are one third more likely to grab a meal at a grocery or department store (according to the The NPD Group/Nielsen report What’s for Supper?).
Opportunities to maximize your share of this market clearly need to focus on providing convenient, off-premise solutions this on-the-go crowd will take advantage of. Especially if these solutions can be carried back to the office and consumed easily at one’s desk.
For dinner operators, if you’re trying to encourage eat-in single diners, be sure to offer a space for them to feel comfortable. This includes smaller tables, access to charging stations for laptops, comfy seating where people can hang out on their own — possibly with clear sight lines to a TV. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, harvest tables are a fun way for single or group diners to meet and share their experiences with others.
Also, keep in mind people love to eat leftovers. Therefore, anything you can do to encourage and facilitate that will certainly pay dividends. This can include offering quality take-home containers or even experimenting with discounting on two or more meals.
There’s one more reason why dining alone might be on the rise. NPD CREST data shows ‘others in the party decided’ on the restaurant 15 per cent of the time. On the other hand, when you’re dining out on your own, you have full control.
One may not be the loneliest number after all. And, in the right circumstances, it just might be better than two.
Written by Vince Sgabellone