Are Restaurants Dead?

Many of the dine-in chains are seeing an erosion of their customer base. Drive through chains are surviving on their convenience attribute. Many of the upscale restaurants continue to suffer from the prolonged recession or are they? When the recession hit many began looking for ways to trim their personal expenses and dining out was one of the most obvious places to start. Fried pub food is more expensive and not as good for you as a couple of burgers at home with a few beers from the store. How difficult is it to pick up a bottle of restaurant quality wine from the store, at a third of the restaurant price, and go home to baked potatoes and a steak. Americans have rediscovered the kitchen in their house and finding the food is pretty good too.

As reported in the Gourmet News, Good News for Grocers is Bad News for Restaurateurs, grocery and convenience stores have begun to understand they are more than rotisserie chicken – “they’re grab and go”. Salad bars, soup bars, prepared sandwiches, sushi, deli counters; you are beginning to see more ready-to-eat offerings in the aisles. My grocery store is also offering “Bake at Home” bread which has been frozen and takes only 10 to 15 minutes in the oven and another 10 minutes or so to rest before hitting the table. The recession’s silver lining is that Americans are eating better and they realize it.

All is not lost for the local restaurant. The better ones around us are turning to advertising “local” bred, grown and harvested on their menus. They are hitting back at the large grocery chains’ inability or unwillingness to source more local food stuffs. I expect the restauranteurs who have the culinary skills and the social skills to cultivate local purveyors will thrive. I expect that more marginally successful local farms will pursue alignment with local restaurants or restaurant groups and begin to thrive. Farmers can significantly reduce sales costs and improve margins by securing a closer relationship with the “local” restauranteurs. They may need to change some of their practices and procedures to accommodate the restaurant’s needs and schedules. They should view the relationship as a corporate CSA or CSF.

If the market develops as I expect then you will begin to see more pressure on Farmers’ Markets as some suppliers become committed to the restaurant distribution network and withdraw from the public market. However, I am very hopeful that vacuum will be short-lived as more become encourage or embolden to take up farming and create the second leg up for the local agrarian reform movement. Surprisingly one of the bigger risks faced by local agriculture is local politicians who can’t see past the vacant smokestacks to realize that agriculture can rejuvenate rural New England.

These are exciting times for an eater.

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