Consumers Interested In Dining Out And Eating Healthfully

Most industries and families have seen monumental changes over the past two years as the country adjusted to the impact of the challenged economy. Restaurants experienced the same storm, adjusting to a climate where consumers were in search of more affordable dining-out options or, worse, not eating out at all.

According to consumer survey research conducted by Market Force, a global leader in customer intelligence solutions, these precarious spending trends were at their highest in December 2009. In that time period, more than half of the survey respondents were fearful of the struggling economy and said they planned to eat out less than they had in prior months.

That picture changed dramatically over the past six months, with Market Force’s research showing a more than 180-degree. When the same question was posed to consumers in June, one in four said they expect to eat out more this summer, and just 8 percent said they would dine out less. Sixty-seven percent expected their eating out patterns to remain the same.

In 2010, there appears to be a shift in food trends from the “hunker down and don’t spend” collective mindset to a public that is a little more relaxed about spending and has a new focus on making food decisions around personal health. The evidence is everywhere:

• Michelle Obama launching her “Let’s Move” initiative to eliminate childhood obesity in America.

• Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, TX, introducing its “Health Starts Here” community outreach programs that educate consumers about healthful eating.

With the growing prevalence of health and wellness educational programs, more and more consumers are discovering the direct link between diet and disease and are factoring it into their food choices.

Market Force’s restaurant study showed that 42 percent of consumers believe it is extremely important for restaurants to provide nutrition and calorie information, and about one-third placed equal importance on portion control. Surprisingly, given the expansion of the organic market in recent years, only 13 percent said that a restaurant’s use of organic products was extremely important. This could be attributed to cost-conscious diners wondering if the taste and health benefits are worth the expense. It was more important that restaurants used products that were locally grown, perhaps because post-recession consumers are concerned about rejuvenating their local economy.

The Market Force restaurant survey also asked participants to rank their favorite quick service restaurants (QSRs) and casual family restaurants, and then to rate them in the following attributes: Quality of Food, Taste of Food, Speed of Service, Friendly Service, Cleanliness, Atmosphere, Overall Value, Healthy Choices and Green/Sustainable.

The responses revealed that the quality and taste of the food mattered most, even more than the service. Five Guys, in Lorton, VA, was named the favorite restaurant on the QSR front, and it outscored the other contenders in seven out of the 10 attributes. St. Louis, MO-based Panera Bread, known for its healthful meal options, also fared well in the rankings, taking the second spot overall.

In the casual family dining restaurant category, the Cheesecake Factory, in Calabasas Hills, CA, came out on top with 13 percent of the vote, outscoring the competition in six out of the 10 attributes — including the top score in healthy choices.

The restaurant survey was conducted May – June 2010 among Market Force’s network of 300,000 independent mystery shoppers and merchandisers across the country, dubbed The Force. The pool of 4,600 consumer respondents ranged in age from 18 to 72 and reflected a broad spectrum of income levels, with 60 percent reporting incomes of more than $50,000 a year. Eighty percent work full- or part-time. Seventy-six percent were women — the primary household consumer purchasers. Half of the participants said they have children at home.