For not that much more, Americans opting to eat out

By the time he's driven to the farmers' market, bought the organic veggies, and spent an hour of his time cooking a meal for himself and his wife, Mark Chernesky figures he's spent $30.

That's why today, after fighting rush hour, the Atlanta multimedia coordinator is rushing in to Figo's, a pasta place, for handstuffed ravioli slathered with puttanesca sauce. "I'll get out of here for $17 plus tip," he says.

Crunch the numbers and all across America the refrain is the same: Eating out is the new eating in. Even with wages stagnant, time-strapped workers are abandoning the family kitchen in droves.

"When I add my hourly rate, the time to cook at home, I can instead take my family out to dinner and it comes out pretty even," says Paul Howard, a manager-instructor at Café Laura, a restaurant run by college students at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.

Yet restaurants contend with concerns about poor service as well as oversized portions, which contribute to expanding waistlines of Americans. And some Americans still find that cooking their own food at home is less expensive than going out.

But many are choosing to eat out because they don't have time to cook for themselves and their families. For example, 60 percent of mothers work outside the home. Leaving Mom's family table for plasma-TV plastered lounges is also about the capitalism of the kitchen: Restaurateurs are absorbing rising food and gas costs and even inflation to keep their menu prices low for patrons.

For the first time this year, American restaurants will bring in above a half-trillion dollars in total sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. The US has about 925,000 restaurants and at least 8,000 are added each year.

NRA surveys show that diners increasingly view restaurants as extensions of their own homes, and a large percent would like to see table-top TVs installed at their favorite eating joint. In the next decade, more than half the average household food budget will be spent on meals bought outside the home compared with 25 percent in 1955, the NRA reports.

"The restaurant industry has become more essential to consumer daily lifestyles than at any point in history," says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the NRA.

For Leah McAllister, an advertising representative who lives near Atlanta, the rigors of work and family are contributing to her decision to eat out frequently. Tonight, she's pushing her baby toward Taqueria del Sol, a Mexican eatery in downtown Decatur, Ga., for a plate of Memphis tacos.

Within a block, she has other options, including pickled tsukemono veggies at Sushi Avenue, rock shrimp tacos at the Key West Fish House, or organic Sonoma duck breast for $15 at the Supper Club.

The biggest reason for the shift in her lifestyle: grocery store prices. Just the other day she paid $8 for a package of chicken wings, and was shocked that they were so high-priced. "I was raised that everyone came home and ate around the family table, but now we eat out at least three times a week," says Ms. McAllister. "It's easier, and sometimes it's cheaper."

Despite all the money Americans are spending on eating out, restaurants' profit margins are below 5 percent, the NRA says. A dearth of new cooks and waiters has meant the end of many eateries. But cutthroat competition among restaurants has helped them to be able to produce good food at low prices, experts say.

"Restaurants aren't winning on their sophistication of pricing, they're winning on their ability to deliver value," says Mark Bergen, a pricing specialist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. "Simply put, restaurants are more efficient than you are."

Restaurant food costs went up more than 5 percent from the previous year in 2003 and 2004. Yet entrees stayed at much the same prices. Restaurants quietly raised prices for appetizers, alcohol, and desserts. Bundling and hard-selling specials are other tactics that focus on high-margin items. The industry, too, is using automation techniques to keep costs low: Computers keep track of traffic and beep to tell managers when to send staff home.

But restaurants have been tackling their share of problems. Most turn over more than their entire staff each year, a rate that has contributed to a decline in service over the past 10 years, experts say.

Eating out is also considered a major cause of obesity in America, according to a recent report by the Food and Drug Administration. The report helped prompt New York City's health department to announce a plan to ban unhealthy transfats from city kitchens. The plan also makes restaurants with standard menus list calorie counts of items.

Even as restaurants continue to add menu items that are fewer in calories and healthier, bold changes have failed, experts say. Ruby Tuesday restaurant recently reduced portion sizes, which patrons panned.

"Portion size is a huge issue," says Mr. Howard at Café Laura. "Society and research is saying we eat too much, but when you try to come up with [smaller] portions, customers hate it," he says.

The fact that restaurant meals are favored over homemade dinners bothers some. Martin Shehan, from Quail Valley, Calif., is not convinced that eating in is just as expensive as eating at restaurants. The economics of a slab of salmon on the grill disproves that, he says.

"My philosophy is, if it's not in the freezer, you can't eat it," says Mr. Shehan. "That's how I raised my kids, but these days I notice they eat out a lot, too. It's this cellphone generation that's too busy to cook...."

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