The Restaurant Association says Americans will spend $354 billion this year on takeout and restaurant food, or 44 percent of their food budget; the figure is expected to surpass 50 percent within a decade. Contrast this with 1955, when only 25 percent of every food dollar was spent on meals, snacks and beverages away from home.
As the show also pointed out, the entire concept of the restaurant is changing.
Of course, a restaurant is a place people go to eat. But it also has become a place where people go to pick up food to take home, or have it delivered. And the fare is fancier than burgers and pizzas.
Feeding this is the economy. Americans are working longer hours - they're working, period - and they have become passionate about all kinds of prepared food.
More takeout shops and restaurants have opened to feed the demand. This has heightened competition. Not only do restaurants try to capture the wallets of hungry customers, but they also compete fiercely for the same shallow pool of employees. Even burger-flippers at some outlets are getting perks such as signing bonuses and guaranteed consecutive days off, says the Restaurant Association.
Restaurants also face a stiff fight from supermarkets, many of which have added spiffy food courts and which stock gleaming counters and cases with so-called home replacement meals - restaurant-quality prepared foods to take home.
The association is firm in its belief that the restaurant industry will grow, even in the competitive environment.
"Without question, the restaurant of the future will be busier, more high-tech, and do a brisker business in takeout and delivery than restaurants today," said Hudson Riehle, the association's senior director of research, who briefed the media about trends.
Riehle said that in 10 years, many more restaurants will dedicate separate sections to takeout and delivery. Restaurateurs and manufacturers of kitchen equipment have rolled out technology to make this happen.
The idea is to make better-looking and better-tasting food faster, with less labor and waste. Among the thousands of products that lined the show's six miles of aisles was an electric salad dryer that can dry eight heads of lettuce in less than a minute. There were not one but several sushi machines (drop in the fish, add cooked rice and vegetables, and you're on a roll). Need 25 pounds of peeled and deveined raw shrimp in a couple of minutes? Or onion rings without the tears? There are machines to do that.
And the new generation of commercial ranges, grills and stoves even looks lovely, all the better in open kitchens seen by diners. The eating public, while not targeted at this trade show, eventually will demand similar glitzo devices in its own kitchens. (Whether people actually use the stuff is another question. We can imagine a $10,000 stove being used to heat up a home replacement meal or simply sitting idle while the owner dines at a restaurant.)
Outdoor dining is bigger than ever, as evidenced by the half-dozen companies selling propane heaters stuck on top of poles.
The next time you're lured into a store by an aroma, look around. The source may be a suitcase-size metal box known as a Smell Blitz. It is made by Fragrance Technologies, of Clearwater, Fla. Known in the trade as a fragrance delivery system, the user fills the Blitz with fragrance - such as "oranges," "jasmine" and "buttered popcorn," or even "ocean with seaweed," "dinosaur dung" and "rancid meat" - and switches it on. The gizmo sells for $2,300 to $2,835. Does it work? "Well, Disney World put in one outside a shop selling chocolates and used chocolate fragrance," said Jim Carson, formerly of Churchville, Pa. "Sales went up 15, 20 percent."
Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds, which own many food brands, devoted entire exhibits not to food but to their plea for restaurants and municipalities to accommodate smoking rather than to ban it.
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