Thursday, November 26, 2015

Restaurants as Kitchens

Are Americans eating out more than ever?  I think so.

One of the things I harp on in this blog (and I do harp a lot) is the use of a restaurant as your kitchen.   I know a lot of people who do this - many of my friends, for example.  They eat out four or even five nights a week, eat lunch at a restaurant and sometimes even breakfast.   For some folks, eating a home-cooked meal at home is a "special treat" and eating at a restaurant is the norm.   Time was, things were the other way around.

Why is eating in restaurants all the time such a bad thing?   It is bad for your pocketbook.  It is bad for your health.  It is bad for your soul.   Let's look at these things one at a time and you'll see what I mean.   And bear in mind, I am talking about eating in restaurants all the time - as in 4-5 times a week at least.   There is nothing wrong with the occasional meal at a restaurant as a special treat or occasion.   But when restaurants replace your kitchen as your primary source of nourishment, you are on a one-way ticket to broke, fat, depression-town, with little or no hope of return.
1.  Bad for Your Pocketbook:   This is a real no-brainer, unless of course, you have no brain.   In the highly flawed movie Supersize Me, they did make one valid point - a lot of people, particularly middle-class or lower-middle-class and of course the poor, think that fast-food is a "value".  A lady and her family are shown idling their monster SUV in the driver-through window of McDonald's.   When they take her to a grocery store and she is shown a head of broccoli, her only remark is, "Well, I can buy an entire Big Mac for this much money!"
But as I illustrated in another posting, you can make meals at home for a little as 1/4 the cost of dining out.  So even a "cheap" fast food meal costs 4X what it would cost you to buy ingredients and make the same thing (only better) at home.   And with fancier restaurants, the savings are even greater.

Your food budget can be a big part of your overall budget.   The government tells us the average "household" (whatever that is) spends about $600 a month on groceries.   If you instead eat at restaurants, expect to multiply this by four times, at least.   That's a lot of money!

2.  Bad for Your Health:  As Anthony Bourdain illustrated in his book, Kitchen Confidential, the "secret ingredient" that restaurants use to make food taste better is butter and lots of it.   They put butter on steaks and they taste juicier and saltier.   But high fat and salt content isn't the half of it.   The mounds of carbohydrates in everything from the traditional (in America) "bread basket" to the mountain of fries or mashed potatoes, or rice, or pasta, or grits or whatever, drives the calorie count off the charts.

And then there is portion size.   Every restaurant serves enormous portions, trying to show "value" for your money - and most of these portions are puffed up with cheap carbs.   A typical restaurant meal is easily 1000 calories or more - sometimes far more - enough to cover more than half (and sometimes all) of your dietary requirements for the day.   You eat like this, you will fatter and unhealthy over time.

3.  Bad for Your Soul:   Eating at restaurants all the time is a sign of depression and a cause of it as well.  Being pampered is bad for your soul, ironically.  Doing things yourself and creating things is good for it.   One sure way to fight off depression is to do things, be active, and be creative.   When a monkey realizes he can alter his environment with his actions, he is less depressed.

You can spot the chronic restaurant eater as they are also chronic complainers.  It is the only thing they can do, as they are completely passive in this transaction.   Their only "action" in their lives is selecting things from a menu and then complaining about them or the service, and of course, putting it all on Yelp!

This is a natural result of being pampered and having nothing to do all day but be passive and be waited on.  When you create your own meals - when you create anything - you will be less depressed and happier.   Your brain is hard-wired to want to do things and alter the environment it is in.  When you can manipulate your environment and change it, you realize you have power over your life (to some extent) and this builds a feeling of self-worth.  (And this is why teaching "self-esteem" in school will never work - it has to be earned, not taught).

On the other hand, if you are lazy and just order your meals all the time, well, the only way you can change your environment is to complain a lot and maybe get a free meal.   It is the same with people who do nothing but shop all the time.   It is a passive act of being pampered, not an active act of creating.  Being pampered leads to depression.  Being active is the way out.

So, all that being said, are people eating out more than before?  It seems to me they are, just based on anecdotal evidence since I was a kid.  Back before 1970, there were few McDonald's in the nation, and I remember that going to one near Chicago was a "special treat" - not something we did on a daily or weekly basis.   Eating in restaurants was also very special - maybe monthly at most for us kids, maybe weekly for our parents - if that.   And our parents were fairly well off, so it was not a matter of poverty that prevented them from dining out all the time - it just wasn't done.

Since those days a lot of things have changed.  McDonald's is everywhere now, as are Burger King, Wendy's, Arby's, and a host of other fast-food chains (most of which didn't exist when I was a kid).   So-called "Casual dining" chains have sprung up and taken over the nation's strip malls.  These places simply didn't exist in 1970, other than perhaps the "Bonanza Steak House" and their ilk.

Pizza delivery, once limited to college campuses, went mainstream, with blaring ads on the television and delivery to every suburb.   And the number of chains and stores has expanded accordingly.

Now granted, some restaurant segments have shrunk during this period.   In my hometown, we had a "Chocolate Shop" just like out of Archie Comics - where you could get breakfast, lunch, or dinner, served on Syracuse or Buffalo China.   Diners and small-town "greasy spoons" largely went by the wayside, the victims of fast-food breakfasts and eating in your car.

But has restaurant spending gone up?  And has it gone up at a greater rate than the population?   According to the chart at the top, people spent about $42.5 Billion on restaurant meals in 1970.   Adjusted for inflation, this would be $259 Billion today.  And yet, today, we spend over $700 Billion on restaurant meals - more than we do on groceries for the home, according to the middle chart.

Of course, the population of the USA has increased since then, almost linearly:

If we assume around 205 million people in 1970, that comes to about $1263 in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars per person back in 1970, spent on restaurant meals.   If we assume around 320 million people today, that number comes to $2216 per person, or a near doubling of what we spend in restaurants since 1970.  No word on whether this data includes take-out or delivery items.

Of course, our obesity epidemic can be traced to this as well - starting around the mid-1970's and increasing gradually until today.   Some blame high-fructose corn syrup.   Maybe it was all those stoners getting the munchies.   Maybe it was an increased reliance on restaurant foods.   Maybe it is a combination of all three.

The biggest growth area in recent years has been what some are calling "fast casual" foods.  These are restaurants which are not fast-food, but not really sit-down places where you will spend a lot of time.  Some are calling this the "Chipotle Effect" after the so-called "Tex-Mex" restaurant which serves burritos the size of your head.

Whatever the cause, it seems that people are eating out far more often than in previous generations, and spending a lot more money in the process, often putting these meals on a credit card and then wondering, like deer in the headlights, why years later they are broke, fat, and in debt to their eyeballs.

Now to be sure, an average of $2216 per person doesn't sound like a lot of money from your budget.  Or does it?   Again, if you have an income of $100,000 a year, after taxes, mortgage, car payments, and whatever, you may have a "disposable" income of only $10,000 or so.  If you can cut your restaurant bill to $1000 a year, well, that is a 10% increase in your disposable income.

And of course, averages can be deceiving, as they lump together the spending of the very poor with the very rich.   With most restaurant "tickets" being $50 or more (or over $100) per couple, $2216 could be reached very quickly.

And this is where it gets tricky - and people end up in trouble.   Since it seems "all your friends" are going out to T.J. McChotckey's Onion Chili Outback Neighborhood Grill (where everyone is family, doncha know!) you go with them, and put it all on a credit card.   And over time, your credit card debt load starts to ratchet up, and you can't figure out why both your credit card balance and waistline are growing.

Don't get me wrong.   Eating at a restaurant can be a fantastically great time - with good food, drink, and friends to share it with (and good service, too!).  But only a small child says, "again!  again!" as if repeating the same experience over and over again would actually enhance it, instead of detracting from it.

Only small children - and Teletubbies - find the same experience, repeated endlessly - to be satisfying.

And it seems that many folks "dining out" these days are not going out for social reasons, but merely to refuel their bodies.   Couples dine in silence, each ordering mounds of food and spending the meal on their cell phones, texting.  They take home half the meal in clamshells.  Dining alone seems to be on the rise, at least from what I can see - and others are seeing it as well.  This is not a "dining experience" this is a gas-station for your stomach.

Today is Thanksgiving.   In the past, most restaurants would be closed today, because it is a holiday, and since everyone would be at home, making Turkey or Ham or whatever, there would be no restaurant business.   But today, many restaurants are open, serving Thanksgiving feasts for people who are "too tired to cook" and don't want to go through "all that hassle" of making a meal.

And yea, for some folks, this probably is a very handy thing, particularly if you are elderly and can't even lift a Turkey, much less cook it.   But this is part and parcel of this trend of using restaurants as our kitchens.   And I am not sure it is a good thing.

* * * 

Now, when I have mentioned this topic before, some have tried to cloud the issue.   They try to argue that restaurant meals are cheaper than ones prepared at home.   This is, of course, almost never the case, unless you go to a very cheap restaurant, use a coupon or something, and then don't tip.   That is not a valid comparison.

The second argument is "opportunity cost".   The thinking is, if you are a hotshot young (attorney, doctor, IT professional, whatever) you are making X dollars an hour, and thus spending time making your own food is wasteful, as you could pay someone to make the food for you, for less money.  This same argument is used to justify hiring a maid, a lawn service, a dog-walking service, or buying or leasing a new car (so you don't waste time having it repaired, etc.).

But again, "opportunity cost" arguments make little sense in real life, as you really can't just work more hours to pay for these things - at least in most cases.

There are situations, of course, where it may make sense.  You are working on a rush project and are spending 12 hours a day at the lab or whatever.  Sending out for a meal allows the staff to work longer - but usually a smart manager pays for this.   Or you are an intern working at a hospital on a 24 hour shift (or longer, as they used to be).   You may not have a choice.

But for the rest of us mere mortals, however, it doesn't make much sense.

Another argument which is interesting is the idea that automation and mass-production should lower costs to the point where it is indeed cheaper to buy food prepared at a place that specializes in preparing food (i.e., a restaurant) just as it is cheaper to buy a car made on an assembly line at a factory than it is to rebuild one from the ground up, in your garage.

That argument would seem to have some merit, but it does seem to fall flat.   The material costs for making a meal are the same for the restaurateur and the homeowner - with the restaurateur getting only minimal discounts on the cost of foodstuffs.  He's not getting steaks and lobster tails for a dollar a pound or anything like that.   Throw in the cost of labor and the overhead of the restaurant space itself, and you have a cost that is 4X what you would pay at home.   And other items, such as liquor, wine, and beer, are usually sold at a rate 4-10X what a consumer would pay at home.   The restaurant is not a very efficient "factory" for making and serving food, not even the fast-food type.

No, I'm sorry, it just doesn't add up.   Eating in restaurants is fine and all.  When it becomes a nearly daily thing, think about where that is taking you, in terms of your diet, finances, and mental health.