Much Depends on Dinner


Find out how to fix the ailing evening daypart

“All human history attests That happiness for man — the hungry sinner! — Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.”

Mealtime hasn’t changed much since Lord Byron penned those words 200 years ago. Today, happiness for restaurant operators often depends on success at dinner, which has long been the industry’s largest sales generator. Unfortunately, it’s also been the weakest-performing meal occasion over the past four years. Demand, as measured in customer traffic counts, has ebbed steadily since 2008.

Population Shifts Contribute to Dinner Challenges

The restaurant dinner demographic is changing as baby boomers age. Today, the industry’s most frequent evening visitors, aged 18 to 34, are buying seven to eight fewer restaurant dinners per year than they did in 2008. And, annual visits by customers, between the age of 35 and 64, are down moderately, from two to four fewer visits. While mature adults go out for dinner less often, the 65-plus generation has been the only age group to increase their dinner visits. As boomers move into their senior years, it’s expected this trend will continue.

Although dinner declines are impacting quick-service and full-service restaurant segments now, NPD’s “Future of Foodservice” report projects family/midscale dinner visits will increase as the population ages. By 2016, consumers aged 50-plus are forecast to drive four out of 10 family/mid-scale supper visits. However, dinner growth is expected to be relatively static for casual restaurants, due to their greater dependence on younger age groups.

Winning Back Dinner Visits

A wavering economy and aging population contributed to declines in dinner at restaurants, so recovering lost visits will require a new mindset. Below are tips for attracting business:

  • develop and introduce new products, pricing and value propositions when appealing to young adults aged 18 to 34 who tend to eat fewer dinners at home;
  • make customers aware that restaurant food is better than a home-cooked meal by offering dishes that are time-consuming and challenging to prepare;
  • promote the use of fresh, local ingredients to give a better perception of value, beyond price discounts.

It won’t be as easy to appeal to the 45-plus group, which is the fastest-growing segment of the population, but start by acknowledging the group’s concerns. They will likely appreciate smaller portions, affordable prices and respect as a valued customer.

Attracting a dinner crowd will require work, but the potential payback is significant since much depends on dinner.         

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