October 21, 2009
Zagat Survey finds diners spending less but getting better deals

Zagat Survey, the company that publishes grassroots restaurant guides, just sent us the results of a dining survey that may answer a few questions we all have about how restaurants are doing in this down economy.

The survey is based on 145,000 local restaurant-goers in 45 U.S. markets. If you look at No. 5, you'll see why I often emphasize service in my restaurant reviews. Here's what we received from Zagat:

1) On the downside, due to the weak economy, 43% of people are eating out less; 41% are more price-conscious when reading menus; 36% are going to less expensive places; and 19% are cutting back on alcohol and 22% are skipping appetizers and/or dessert.

2) On the upside, 54% of diners report getting better deals; 40% feel their patronage is more appreciated; 31% enjoy easier access to top restaurants; and 20% say they are eating healthier, perhaps due to all those drinks and desserts they're skipping.

3) Over the past five years, the percent of lunches and dinners "eaten out or taken out" has declined markedly - from 53% to 48%; this is consistent with the fact that 44% of surveyors say that they're cooking at home more.

4) Only 26% report their dining habits being unaffected by the economy.

5) Service continues to be the main complaint of 68% of diners (with crowding, noise, prices, poor food, and traffic/parking cumulatively representing only 30% of complaints), however, surveyors report by a 22% to 6% margin, that service has improved of late.

6) Fortunately for staffers, tipping increased from 19% to 19.1% this year.

7) Prices showed an annual inflation of 3.96% since 2000; this year that dropped to 1.20%; among the most expensive restaurants, annual inflation had been 5.25% that dropped to 0.49% in 2008/9.

8) Use of the internet to reserve has jumped from 8% to 20% in just a few years.

9) As for taste preferences, Italian food with a 27% plurality beats out even American food at 16%; French and Japanese both at 11% and Mexican at 10% follow.

10) Forty percent of surveyors say they're more likely to dine at a top chef's restaurant.

11) When it comes to issues of health and greening, 69% consider it important to have low-carb, low fat, heart healthy menu items available at restaurants; 65% think trans fats should be banned; and 61% are willing to pay more for food that is "green" (i.e. locally grown, sustainably raised, or organic).

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