- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

Americans are spending more to feed their appetites by dining out and avoiding the kitchen as the economy continues to thrive and they become more strapped for time.

In fact, diners are spending more than $1 billion a day in restaurants and on prepared meals from supermarkets, according to the National Restaurant Association. That is $376 billion in expected sales this year up 5 percent from 1999.

Industry officials aren't surprised.

"As our lives become more busy, restaurants play an increasing role in people coping with their lifestyles," said Steven Anderson, president and chief executive at the National Restaurant Association. "People used to say at the end of the day, 'What do you want to eat?' Now they say, 'Where do you want to meet?' "

Restaurants in the Washington area from fast food to fine dining can expect sales to reach $5.6 billion an increase of 5.5 percent over last year. That's higher than the national 5.1 percent increase.

Area diners are spending 53 cents of every food dollar on food service. Nationally, diners are channeling about 45 cents of every food dollar to restaurants.

Dining out has become a "function of our lifestyle," said Eric Peterson, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Whether it's from a high concentration of two-worker households and the area's high per-capita income or the lack of time to cook and the diverse choice in restaurants, local diners are finding it easier to go out to eat rather than slave over a hot stove.

Thanks to the healthy economy, diners have no qualms about spending money at restaurants.

"White tablecloth" restaurants those with average checks of $25 or more per person are the fastest-growing segment of the industry, with sales expected to increase by 6 percent this year.

"I was brought up in a generation where going out to dinner was a treat," said Bill McCormick, co-founder of seafood restaurant McCormick & Schmick's, which has six locations in the Washington-Baltimore area. "The post-war baby boomers gave the industry a whole new opportunity."

Restaurants "fill a lot of voids and requirements" from feeding Americans' too-busy-to-cook lifestyles to serving as a neutral ground to close a business deal, finalize a divorce or discuss a problem with a teen-age son or daughter.

"Restaurants have become an integral part of our lifestyle today," Mr. McCormick said.

All categories in the restaurant industry are benefiting from the healthy economy. Sales in casual dining, takeout orders and prepared meals from supermarkets also are rising.

Giant Food's sales of prepared meals have been increasing, said grocery chain spokesman Barry F. Scher, although he would not disclose details about the company's prepared-foods division.

"More and more people are finding that they have less time to spend in the kitchen on meal preparation," he said.

Despite the restaurant industry's optimistic projections, cookbook historian Bob Allen said he doesn't think fewer people are cooking.

"The fact people are spending more in restaurants does not mean they're not spending more time in the kitchen," said Mr. Allen, who founded the Cookbook Collectors Club of America in 1990. The increase in the U.S. population over the past 25 years adds more people to both restaurant dining and at-home cooking, he said.

There's no sign that the $1 billion worldwide cookbook industry is suffering because of Americans' dining habits.

In fact, restaurants are adding to the cookbook industry as more chefs are publishing restaurant cookbooks. Some 50 to 60 restaurant cookbooks are published every year, Mr. Allen said.

Americans are expanding their taste buds and becoming a bit more adventurous with the types of food they eat, as well.

So restaurants are adding variety to their menus in an effort to meet consumer demand and compete with the nation's 831,000 other food-service establishments.

"People have been eating the same things for a long time," said Ralph Harrison, regional chef at McCormick & Schmick's. "Now people are tending to go more risque."

For example, sushi has become a major part of some restaurant menus, which are individually created by chefs at each location. Years ago, the menu may have had only one sushi item, Mr. Harrison said.

Mr. Anderson said that while diners are more adventurous than they used to be and are more willing to try food they wouldn't prepare themselves, unusual foods won't be that widespread.

For example, don't expect to find luxury foods like caviar and shrimp burgers in every restaurant in Washington.

Diners with exotic tastes are likely to satisfy their taste buds in areas like Georgetown or Arlington, Va., Mr. Peterson said.

Restaurants in Fairfax (Va.) and Montgomery (Md.) counties are likely to be less adventurous, probably because the suburbs feature more restaurant chains than independent restaurateurs, he said.

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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