About the only things Americans seem to be eating when they go out are cheeseburgers, nacho platters, chicken sandwiches, curly fries and other fast-food fare.
What about dinner at Michelin-starred eateries or The Olive Garden?
No so much, according to one market research firm, which predicts that overall restaurant industry growth through next year will be as flat as a flour tortilla on a prep table.
According to The NPD Group, year-to-year contractions in casual dining and mid-range restaurant traffic has been recorded in every three-month period since March-May 2010. Two of these quarters (June-August 2011 and September-November 2011) showed 4 percent contractions in mid-range dining compared to the same quarters the previous year.
Fast-food traffic growth, on the other hand, has been between between flat and modest in the same period of time. Between December and February, fast-food restaurants in the U.S. saw the largest increase in the industry of 3 percent compared with the same three months in 2010-11.
That's not to downplay the role of fast food in the industry; it represents 78 percent of America's eating-out options. Also, one should never underestimate America's love for eating out. Despite negative gains in traffic, this is still an industry that attracted 12 billion visits by young adults, who spent $73 billion on food outside of the home.
"Consumers may not be flocking to restaurants in droves, but they are going out. That's good news," said NPD restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs in the announcement of the report's findings on Tuesday. "We're also seeing that when they do dine out, they are trying new offerings, spending a little more and not relying totally on deals. However, their continuing cost-consciousness, still relatively high unemployment and economic uncertainty will keep the industry flat."
Another factor worth mentioning: cosmopolitan diners. According to OpenTable.com, which tracks traffic at reservation-taking restaurants (i.e. not Chick-fil-A) and released its second-quarter results on Wednesday, metropolitan markets saw moderate growth in casual dining.
"In the second quarter, industry growth in the U.S. and North America was essentially flat year-over-year," said Matt Roberts, chief executive officer of OpenTable. "Although some markets like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metropolitan Area saw a very modest lift in growth, overall the industry did not enjoy the tailwind it experienced during the same quarter last year."