Older diners overtake the young at restaurants

11:50 AM, Dec 12, 2013   |    comments
Boomer-age diners at Dixie Crossroads restaurant in Titusville include, at left, Joe Cusano, 50, and Karen Bush, 51, At right, is Paula, and Bob Bush, both 59. The server is Jan Brannen.
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Melbourne, FL (Florida Today) -- Johanna Karas took a look at her budget and decided that between the hassle of shopping for groceries and cooking for one, she might as well eat out.

So whether she's dining solo or with friends, the 74-year-old widow does just that, taking meals at local restaurants three or four times a week.

The Melbourne woman has a lot of company at tables nationwide. For the first time in the United States, people older than 49 are eating out more than younger diners, according to a study released this year by the NPD Research Group, a market research company.

Chalk it up, at least in part, as one more recession-based trend. Industry experts say unemployment has hit younger people hard: Younger adults are more than twice as likely as those 55 and older to be unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So that may have something to do with the 12 percent dip since 2008 in the number of nights they're dining out a year. In contrast, the older baby boomers and "mature traditionalists," the generation ahead of the boomers, upped their restaurant visits by about 6 percent, the NPD study found.

"I figure I'm worth it," said Karas, a Walmart cashier who ate at Grills in Melbourne on a recent day off. "Treating myself is a nice thing to do. And I'll take something home if I don't finish it and have it the next day."

These culinary news tidbits don't surprise Dixie Crossroads manager Clay Townsend.

While the famed Titusville restaurant isn't back to 2008 numbers, "sales are going back up, probably about 5 percent for this year," for the first time since the recession started, Townsend said.

And older customers are an important part of the Dixie Crossroads clientele, he said.

"They're more established income-wise, with more disposable income," he said.

"They tend to cherish what a special moment it can be, eating out in a restaurant with family and friends - enjoying that situation and moment in time without crippling their budget."

Brevard, where the median age was 45.5 in 2010, has 1,077 full-service restaurants, according to the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

And potential customers teem in an area that's aging rapidly. More than 42 percent of Space Coast residents are older than 50, the expected median age here by 2020.

The National Restaurant Association says boomers and older diners make excellent regulars. And restaurants, in turn, are responding with comfortable seating. Large-type menus and good lighting. Health-conscious offerings. Choices that embrace tastes from around the globe but down-home "comfort food," too.

Karas frequents Carrabba's, Pane E Vino, and Duffy's Sports Grill.

By the time you factor in gas and food cost and time spent, she said, it can be just as economical - and more fun - for an older person to eschew cooking.

"We don't cause problems," she said, laughing. "And we can be good tippers."

Elaine and Hugh McGavern, baby boomers from Melbourne, eat out at least twice a week. They take advantage of specials and coupons at places including Boston Market, Cheddar's and Red Lobster.

The two spent their 26th wedding anniversary at another favorite, Dixie Crossroads, though it's an hour's drive from their house.

"From an economic standpoint, it can be inexpensive to eat out," said Elaine McGavern.

"We're not really frivolous and we don't drink, so there's no alcohol. And I'm not really a big eater. My husband winds up taking at least half of mine home and he'll have that for lunch the next day."

At Pineda Crossing Bar & Grill in Melbourne, older customers have been a staple since the eatery opened in 1996.

"I think since the recession hit, what the study shows is true," said Cathy Popp, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Bob. "Younger people who used to go out and start partying by eating dinner and going on somewhere else aren't doing that like they did."

And while Popp's husband was at first resistant to the early-bird specials so loved by much-older diners, they're offered now.

The restaurant "would be lost without Indian River Colony Club," home to many Air Force retirees, said Popp, adding that she's gotten so close to older customers, it's like losing family when one dies.

"When we first opened, a lady in that age range discovered us and single-handedly brought us the entire Suntree Country Club," Popp said. "And then the people from Indian River Colony Club all adopted me. ... We have really strong regular customers."

It's the same at Dixie Crossroads, Townsend said.

"Many of our servers have very deep relationships with our guests," he said. "A lot of regulars who come in, we know all about them, their family and their history, and they value that recognition."

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