Dining out declined in the United States for the first time in more than three decades last year, according to a consumer survey taken by a Port Washington-based market research firm.
Restaurant visits in 2009 nationwide showed a 3 percent decline for the year compared to the previous year, the NPD Group survey said.
The American dining dip of 2009 affected not only high-end eateries but also casual and fast-food establishments, the survey found.
A big part of the decline - nearly half, NPD found - resulted from workers' forgoing purchases of takeout food to eat on the job. And when diners showed up at restaurants, they economized by spending less. Families with children and young adults in particular fueled the decline.
NPD has been tracking restaurant dining data since 1976, and 2009 was the first time the overall number of visits decreased year-to-year.
NPD surveys 4,200 consumers every day and asks them what and where they ate the day before. On average, about half of those surveyed respond.
"In 2008, consumers appeared to trade down some full-service visits for fast-food visits. In 2009, they made fewer visits to restaurants overall," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant industry analyst.
"When consumers did visit restaurants, they favored lower-priced options."
The NPD Group survey was consistent with information from the National Restaurant Association, with a membership that includes 380,000 restaurants. The association reports that inflation-adjusted sales in 2009 dropped 2.9 percent compared to the previous year.
Another factor was a dip in food commodity prices that made grocery shopping more of a bargain than in previous years, the survey found.
NPD noticed a trend of "consumers viewing in-home meals as more affordable, especially among consumers most concerned about their finances."
In another segment of the dining industry, the noncommercial food-service sector, there was a major decline of 9 percent compared to the previous year. That included cafeterias and restaurants in business and industry settings; at high schools, colleges and universities; in hospitals, hotels, senior homes and the military; and from vending machines. Vending machine, hotel and workplace dining saw the steepest declines.
The outlook for 2010 "remains difficult for the food service industry until unemployment gets under control," Riggs said. Food service demand is expected to be weak through the first nine months. But there's a bright spot on the horizon: NPD's forecast model predicts modest growth in the last few months of 2010.