Nov 22, 2022 - Economy

Americans are flocking to restaurants this Thanksgiving

Illustration of turkey legs poking out of a styrofoam takeout box.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Record high food prices and key shortages — of turkey and cranberries, for instance — are prompting more Americans to make dinner reservations instead of home-cooked meals this year.

Why it matters: The trend is good news for restaurants, which are eager to recoup lost revenue from the pandemic. And it could reshape the traditional "home for the holidays" ideal, as convenience and value trump tradition and family recipes.

  • More people are ordering catering and takeout food for their holiday tables — everything from pies and side dishes to entire feasts.

"We are seeing it explode," says Brendan Sweeney, CEO of Popmenu, a tech company that handles online orders for restaurants. He's tracking mom-and-pops with as much as $65,000 in advance food orders.

Driving the news: For the first time in decades, it's more economical to dine out on Thanksgiving Day than to shop for, cook and clean up after the traditional meal, a Wells Fargo analysis finds. And surveys show many consumers are taking heed.

  • The cost of food away from home increased 5.8% this year over 2021 — versus 9.8% for a standard grocery trip, Wells Fargo found.
  • Factoring in your time and effort, "you could spend about the same on a dish at a restaurant as you would preparing it at home," Wells Fargo found.
  • "There's a lot of value in eating out at the moment," Brad Rubin, one of the report's authors, tells Axios. "So where Americans usually look at eating out as a luxury around the holidays, it's really more of a value this year."

What they're saying: "We already have reservations flying in the door, and our phones are ringing off the hook," chef Amaris Jones of Red Rooster Overtown in Miami told NBC News on TODAY.

  • Red Rooster is looking to entice Thanksgiving diners by keeping its prices down: "We have a local farm that actually services the community, and we use our lettuce and our greens from that farm," Jones told NBC.

Other eateries are narrowing their margins to keep prices down and diners coming through the door, Rubin said.

  • Unlike supermarkets, "restaurants are hesitant to raise their prices in an extreme way," he said.

Between the lines: Between bird flu and inflation — and more restaurants touting their holiday dine-in and takeout options — Thanksgiving and Christmas could start to look more like traditional restaurant holidays (such as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day).

  • Americans are buying less food in supermarkets.
  • "Pent-up demand for in-restaurant experiences — socialization, celebration and culinary exploration — is strong," according to the National Restaurant Association's newly released annual consumer survey.

By the numbers: A survey this month by Popmenu found that 45% of U.S. consumers plan to order all or part of their Thanksgiving meal from restaurants.

  • "It's like people can say, 'Yeah, I'll just outsource my whole meal to you, and it's not that much more expensive than doing it myself,'" Sweeney tells Axios.
  • A similar survey by Technomic, a restaurant industry consultancy, pegged the number at 29% — up from 24% last year.
  • "While Thanksgiving and Christmas stand out, other holidays such as Fourth of July, Mother's Day and Easter are potential catering occasions and should also be on an operator's 2023 catering calendar," Technomic advises restaurant managers.

The bottom line: "We're not saying it's cheaper to go out to eat," Rubin said. But — this year at least — "it might actually make sense to go out to eat for the same or a little bit more than what you would normally pay to make the meal."

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