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America's becoming a takeout nation
Sacramento Bee


August 04, 2007

Forget apple pie and hot dogs. America's favorite food is anything -- as long as it's to go.

Takeout always has been popular, but U.S. consumers are now ordering takeout meals more than ever and demand is moving up the food chain past burger joints, pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants to casual eateries and even some high-end establishments.

According to newly released statistics, the trend is forcing everyone in the nation's $537 billion restaurant industry -- sandwich shop owners and high-end steakhouses alike -- to rethink their businesses.

"Americans now use restaurants like their parents traditionally used grocery stores," said Harry Balzer, food industry expert with NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. "Restaurants have become places to get food to eat somewhere else."

The country's transformation into a takeout nation starts with its growing disdain for the kitchen. Americans spend 48 percent of their food dollars on restaurant fare, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association, up from about 25 percent 50 years ago.

Put another way: The average American ate 208 meals prepared outside the home last year, NPD Group estimates.

Americans gobbled down an average 127 to-go meals per person in 2006, compared with 81 eaten inside a restaurant, NPD Group said. More than a third of restaurant customers -- 37 percent -- used curbside takeout from sit-down restaurants. The industry has enjoyed 5 percent to 6 percent annual growth for several years.

Restaurant customers like Clarksburg, Calif. resident Dave Nashida are part of the trend. Nashida said he weekly uses Applebee's curbside service.

"I can make a call and pop up here on my way home," Nashida said as he recently picked up a $20 order. "It's just so convenient."

Fast food still dominates takeout -- it makes up as much as 70 percent of a typical McDonald's business -- but demand for to-go meals has grown for national players such as franchisor Applebee's International Inc. and Brinker International Inc.'s mid-range brands: Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina.

Takeout now accounts for about 12 percent of business for restaurants with receipts averaging $10 to $23 per person, the so-called "casual dining" segment, said New York-based restaurant industry consultant Malcolm M. Knapp.

More business is on the way. About four of 10 restaurant operators who offer table service think their takeout traffic will grow this year, the National Restaurant Association reported.

But growing the to-go side of the business takes more than just sticking restaurant food in a plastic foam box.

Takeout's roots go back to roadside stands and food stalls in busy urban markets in ancient Greece and Rome. The modern to-go era emerged in the 1950s with pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants.

Casual dining chains dabbled with takeout menus in the 1970s, but most focused more on bar-served drinks and appetizers bought while customers waited for a table. Takeout, most restaurant operators reasoned, would cut into that business.

But about 10 years ago, harried Americans started placing greater value on time and convenience. New "fast casual" players like Starbucks sprang up offering quick counter service while promising better food and atmosphere.

Suddenly, midlevel restaurants had a wait problem.

Chili's was among the first to respond with restaurants featuring dedicated entrances, parking and a counter for takeout. Six years ago, Outback Steakhouse Inc. introduced curbside service.

Knapp, the industry consultant, said Outback's goal was to slowly grow its takeout business to 5 percent of overall sales. The company, now a unit of OSI Partners Inc., hit that target in one year.

"These were new customers, too," Knapp said. "Outback didn't cannibalize their other business."

Other operators noticed. By 2004, full-service chains pulled in an estimated $14 billion from takeout, nearly equal to the combined business of Wendy's and Burger King.

Today, more than nine out of 10 family dining and casual dining restaurants offer takeout, according to industry figures.

Even high-end restaurants, a segment that traditionally has avoided takeout because gourmet meals usually don't travel or reheat well, are bending to grab-and-go demands. About three-quarters of fine dining establishments offer takeout, up from almost none 20 years ago.


About the writer:

The Bee's Jon Ortiz can be reached at (916) 321-1043 or tortes(at)

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