When Restaurant Goers Eat Down The Food Chain

During recessions, families often times cut back on discretionary spending. One of the areas they might sacrifice is the budget for eating out. Host Michel Martin speaks with Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema about some of the trends he has seen in the restaurant industry during this recession.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we look over the new fall TV lineup and pose the question, why does almost every show with a diverse cast get canceled? Our media critics have the answers. That's in a few minutes.

But, first, it's time to peek inside the pages of The Washington Post Magazine. Something we do regularly to find interesting stories about the way we live now.

This week's issue is a spring dining guide. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema decided to revisit a number of places he had reviewed in the past to see how they're doing. And we figured if you don't live in Washington, D.C. or plan to visit with an expense account, you might think it doesn't matter. But Tom's decision to revisit his reviews got us thinking about how restaurants and patrons are weathering this recession. Maybe it's the Sietsema indicator.

And Tom Sietsema's with us now from the studios at The Washington Post. Tom, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

TOM SIETSEMA: It's always good to be here. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, we were thinking about this in part because retail sales figures came out last week. It was a good-news-bad-news story. You know, on the upside consumers are opening up their pocketbooks. On the bad news side gas prices have gone up so much that that's what people are spending their money on.

Now, we know that Washington, D.C. is a little bit different in the sense that there's a lot of defense spending and so forth. So, not as recession sensitive as other places, but have you seen some broad trends in how restaurants have been adapting to the economic environment?

SIETSEMA: I have. Well, especially what you find is people who are restaurantgoers to begin with, are eating a little bit down on the food chain, so to speak. So if they were going out maybe three times a week, maybe now they're going out once or for lunch and a less expensive dinner. I think the chains are really benefiting from all this too, by the way.

MARTIN: Chains - like what? You mean like Applebee's, places like that.

SIETSEMA: No, the mid-tier chains. You know, there's a new place that opened up that has multiple branches all over the country. It's called Seasons 52, which it's an Orlando chain that's owned by Darden Restaurants, which has Olive Garden, among other restaurants.

But its whole concept is that nothing on the menu is more than 450 calories. And it's at a price point that a lot of people can afford. So it hits sort of two areas, you know. The sense that consumers might want to eat well while they're dining out to enjoy the experience to have it taste good but also fit their pocketbook.

MARTIN: Now, we know that Washington, D.C. is ground zero for the Let's Move campaign by Michelle Obama. But having said that, it doesn't seem like you can walk more than a block or two without running into a new burger place or a pizza place.

SIETSEMA: Or a cupcake place.

MARTIN: Or a cupcake place.

SIETSEMA: Or a yogurt place.

MARTIN: That's right. What is that about?

SIETSEMA: Well, I think it taps into iconic American foods that we all like. Who doesn't like a cupcake, a burger? It's meals often that you can eat on the run. What I see is that people have less time for meals now too. And at least one restaurateur has told me that what motivates diners is their electronic life. And by that I mean people might just have a half an hour to go out of the office for a meal and they've got their BlackBerry, they're got their iPhone. They cannot afford to be away for an hour or two for the traditional, you know, three-course lunch anymore.

MARTIN: So is partly the pizza and burger thing is a time management issue. But what about is it an economic issue as well, that perhaps it's a less expensive date than, you could say, hey, let's go grab a burger rather than going out for a fancy meal? Especially on a first date. You don't know how that's going to go.

SIETSEMA: Sure. I think that's definitely part of it because people, you know, what I was saying earlier about people eating a little bit lower on the food chain. Or, you know, people who are already chowhounds, restaurantgoers, want to continue eating out. But they're just doing so a little bit less often or at mid-tier or lower places, or doing so at lunch instead.

One thing I that haven't noticed is, like, alcoholic drinks are not getting any less expensive. It's still very easy - and this is helping restaurants a lot - it's still very easy to find a $15, $17 cocktail to go with those hamburgers and pizzas we're talking about.

MARTIN: What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did you say $15 for a cocktail? Obviously I haven't been out in a long time.

SIETSEMA: Yeah, believe it or not. Yeah, no, it's very possible to do that. And, you know, another thing that I find is small plates are here to stay. I don't know about you, I'm getting a little tired of sharing my food even though it's a professional obligation. And they go by different names. They're small bites or snacks or shareables. And this is a way for restaurants to maintain that check average that they want to have.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. Are portion sizes responding to the economy, is that what the small plate thing is about? And as for the sharing the plate thing, Tom, I'm sorry, I'm one of the guilty ones because I never like what I order so I'm always eating other people's food. Sorry.

SIETSEMA: You're always stealing French fries and things like that, huh?

MARTIN: Sorry.

SIETSEMA: No. No. That's fine. That's what I do for my job. But it is kind of funny. You know, I think people like a lot of different tastes. And with appetizers it's easier because, you know, you're sort of committed to an entree. There's the protein, there's the starch, maybe a vegetable and it's the same bite after bite. And an appetizer is smaller and you have fewer bites so you want to order more to experience more.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema. He just published his spring dining guide and we're talking about what trends in restaurants over the past year, tell us about how the economy is doing and how restaurants are doing.

I don't want to get into all the details of all the restaurants that you reviewed, just because if, like I say, if you're not in this area or planning to visit, maybe you don't care. But had you noticed any trends with these particular restaurants and whether they were able to make investments? I mean at the end of the day, most restaurants it seems to me, are small businesses and are they experiencing the same kinds of things that we're hearing a lot of small businesses complain about? You know, having trouble getting access to credit, things of that sort. What are you hearing?

SIETSEMA: So like I said earlier, like with the luxury restaurants that I went back to, in particular, and anything that's away from a big dense urban center, one of the places that I looked at was a three-star restaurant with linens and all sorts of wonderful service when it opened up five years ago. Like a lot of restaurants, they've taken the tablecloths out; you don't have that dry cleaning bill anymore. And what they're doing is they might still include caviar, but instead of Beluga or Sevruga, it might be steelhead trout roe. You know, so the portions might be a little bit smaller, or more abundant, but with less expensive ingredients.

MARTIN: I'm so glad you explained that because I didn't even know what you were talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIETSEMA: Oh, I'm...

MARTIN: What's a Steelhead trout? And finally, you know one thing you were talking about, is you didn't review any of these in this issue, but in the fall dining guide you talked about food trucks. Now this has become a kind of phenomenon in the streets of Washington, D.C. Tell us little bit about the food trucks...

SIETSEMA: Oh this is huge. I mean...

MARTIN: ...and is this coming to other cities too?

SIETSEMA: They always say that these food trends sort of originate in the West Coast and are cultivated on the East Coast. I certainly think that's true. You go to Los Angeles, you go to Portland - Portland has something like 600 different food trucks - for a city that's smaller than Washington, D.C. The food truck phenomena here in Washington is about two years old or so, and I think it's fascinating. I mean it's gone beyond just the cupcakes or pizza to include lobster rolls, which are so good they make you feel like you're eating them on the beach with a seagull flying overhead. It's called The Lobster Truck, by the way. But these food trucks are also competing for the hearts and stomachs of diners too, and making a dent in the profit that restaurants are making, at least downtown.

MARTIN: So Tom, if we do eat together, you will let me keep stealing your French fries?

SIETSEMA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Okay. Tom Sietsema is a food critic for the Washington Post. If you'd like to read his piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab, then on TELL ME MORE. And Tom was with us from the studios of the Washington Post. Tom, thanks so much.

SIETSEMA: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

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