Chicago — Americans like to eat out. They do it an average of 3.5 times a week. And National Restaurant Association (NRA) surveys indicate that they would head for restaurants even more often if they felt they could afford it.
To keep prices down and new and old customers coming through their doors, restaurateurs are reaching out in several new directions.
Many of them are turning to computers for help in everything from taking orders to calculating customer waiting time more accurately.
Michael Grisanti, a part-owner of one American and two Italian restaurants in Louisville, Ky., says that computers, by keeping accurate tabs on entrees sold and ingredients used and their costs, save valuable dollars in bookkeeping and inventory chores.
''We'd rather have our chefs cooking than doing paper work,'' he says.
At Jim Errant's three Claim Company restaurants in the Greater Chicago area, most customers may not realize that the management relies on computers to predict how long it will be before the next table is free, to place every order, and to page waiters from the kitchen when orders are ready.
Waiters handle variations by pushing special buttons if you want your hamburger rare, medium, or well done and your salad with or without an array of dressings. With the electronic aid, waiters are able to spend more time with customers and there are no more problems with illegible handwriting and math errors.
Though the unit cost of such a computer system is about $25,000, Mr. Errant, whose restaurants serve 2,500 customers a day and gross about $7 million a year in sales, says the system has paid for itself since he bought it four years ago.
Still, among many restaurateurs, computers remain a controversial topic. The business is by nature a personal one. Customers want to be greeted with a smile and ample personal attention.
Some restaurateurs who have gone the computer route have already beat a retreat. Gary Stern, director of sales and marketing at the Nicollet Island Inn in Minneapolis, says his restaurant is keeping the waiter radio paging system, but has abandoned computerized order-taking for hot menu items. Reasons include the fact that the system once broke down just when demand was heaviest (''We learned the hard way - it was a nightmare,'' he says) and that it was too limited to handle the wide variety of his customers' requests. The system also put the cooks, who read the orders on kitchen terminals, in a particularly isolated position.
''I've cooked,'' Mr. Stern says. ''And I know you need to have as much rapport with waiters as possible, so you're reminded there's a real person out there at the other end of the order.''
For more ideas on how they can do their job more efficiently and keep up with the competition, many of the 90,000 restaurateurs in Chicago this week for the NRA convention browsed through three floors of exhibitions at McCormick Place.
There for the viewing: everything from a machine that blanches French fries, rather than frying them in oil, to hardy dinnerware that can survive repeated waiter drops on a hard restaurant floor to a low-temperature dishwasher in which the bleach in the detergent seals the sanitizing job. For those looking for a little cooking help, there was a ''foolproof'' canned souffle base requiring only the addition of egg whites and sugar. And, for those thinking of boosting carryout sales in gourmet cold foods, there was a handsome display case of marble and brushed stainless steel featuring such cool delicacies as kiwi and cantaloupe sorbet.
''Restaurants are going to become more like department stores,'' predicted Chicago's Jim Errant, as he guided this reporter through the maze of new equipment and serving ideas. ''Many are moving toward offering more carryout service, because customers don't always want to sit right down and eat it there - yet they want quality food, and they don't mind paying more.'' Errant says it took a good year for carryout service in his restaurants to catch on. But it now accounts for $200,000 worth of annual business with no added space or labor costs.
When it comes to menus, many restaurants that once prided themselves on offering elegant European fare are deciding to ''go American.'' And they're defining it as much more than traditional steak and potatoes.
''There's a big interest in the industry in American recipes prepared with American produce,'' says NRA spokesman Jeffrey Prince. ''Restaurants are picking up the best of what various regions have to offer - from New England clam chowder to shrimp creole from New Orleans - and putting them on the same menu.''