And You Can Ask the Waiter to Break the Wishbone

The National Restaurant Association estimated this week that 14 million Americans, a little under 5 percent of us, will dine in a restaurant this Thanksgiving. Last year, the NRA was estimating levels of 11 percent, more than twice as high.

Of course, given the poor economy, none of this is a great surprise. After all, “the only additional cost of a home-cooked meal is time,” Peter Drucker noted in Managing in Turbulent Times, and during a recession time is “in plentiful supply.”

But Drucker wrote those words while contemplating a mystery. During a severe recession in 1973-74, Americans kept going to restaurants. “In 1973, eating out began to boom in America,” Drucker wrote. “Since then it has been doubling every two years, to the point where, by 1980, every other meal eaten in the United States is an ‘eating-out’ meal.”

"Freedom From Want" by Norman Rockwell, 1943

[EXPAND More]Drucker thought this indicated “a new segmentation at work, a segmentation linked to population dynamics rather than to income.” As he explained it: “The popularity of eating out is directly related to the increasing number of married women at work, for whom time is much shorter than money. It is also related to the increased number of older people in the adult population, for whom going out to eat is often the easiest way to escape confinement and be ‘in the swim.’”

In short, as far as restaurant dining was concerned, societal shifts mattered a lot more than economic ups and downs.

So maybe the recession doesn’t fully explain why Americans are planning to cut back on Thanksgiving in restaurants this year. To be sure, the bad economy could be the reason. But Drucker probably would not rule out other factors, like a new segmentation of consumers, either.

“Everybody knows how the consumer ought to behave, except the consumer,” Drucker quipped in The Changing World of the Executive. “What for one market segment is rational—i.e., makes the most of its economic conditions—makes little sense for another group.”

What sorts of considerations have you been making when deciding whether or not to dine out? Has the bad economy been the sole reason for your decision—or is something else at play?[/EXPAND]