Ryan Turner, one of three self-described “bozos” who’ve made a name for themselves in Atlanta’s restaurant scene, was chatting with some fellow restaurateurs a few weeks back. The occasion was the Georgia Restaurant Association’s annual Grace industry awards and the crowd was, as you would expect, informed and invested and possessed by the optimism that comes from promoting an immutable truth: We all must eat.
Turner, 42, and his partners — the other bozos — share ownership of three acclaimed restaurants, one of which opened in 2010, just as the leisure and hospitality industry was taking its first steps out of a recession that kneecapped 619,000 of its jobs. The company’s newest restaurant, Common Quarter, opened a year ago, joining its Muss & Turner’s and Local Three . In 2012, he and his partners added a speakeasy called Eleanor’s to Muss & Turner’s. Walk through a cooler door in the kitchen and behold the hidden bar.
Is it just me, Turner asks his comrades, or are we seeing an insane amount of restaurant openings? He hasn’t seen this kind of fervor since the mid- to late 90s. Experienced, skilled culinary staff is hard to find, he says, though the culinary schools are churning out the newbies bitten by the bug. In all, just shy of 150 people work for the company.
It’s not just Atlanta or Georgia. It’s Colorado and Texas and California and Florida and Oklahoma. It’s D.C. The leisure and hospitality industry – largely built upon restaurants – dug itself out of the recessionary job hole in half the time it took the larger economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it’s still adding jobs at twice the clip of the rest of the U.S. job market. Most of the jobs are the part-time, lower-wage work that makes up the industry, but in the restaurant world, a disproportionate hirer of teens and students, it has been ever so.
Bottom line: An industry that makes up about 8 percent of the country’s total nonfarm jobs has accounted for almost one of every six nonfarm jobs created during the recovery.
Put another way, between February 2010 and October 2014, restaurant employment grew 15.9 percent, while total U.S. employment rose 7.7 percent, says the National Restaurant Association’s chief economist Bruce Grindy.
None of which surprises Turner in the least.
“What we do is timeless,” he says. “Nothing we do can be duplicated online. Nothing we do can be made over in Asia and shipped over here cheaper. The industry has its risks and we hear about them all the time, but everyone needs to eat. Everyone loves to eat.”
We all must eat. But not at restaurants. And an odd thing is happening on the way to the kitchen. Hiring is up. Demand, not so much. As Roberto Ferdman reported this week, Americans haven’t eaten so few dine-in or take-out meals since the early 90s.
“At best, demand is flat,” says Harry Balzer, senior vice-president of NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm that tracks how people eat. By NPD’s count, 5,000 more restaurants were open this spring compared to last spring. As of this spring, the country had about 19,000 more restaurants than it did in spring 2010. The industry, Balzer says, can thank average annual population growth for that.
“There are 3 million more people this year than a year ago, 3 million more mouths that have to be fed.” he says. “But if you ask, ‘Is the average American eating out more? No. There are more bellies, but the average belly is not getting more of its food from restaurants.”
The big chains are facing challenges, Balzer says, as are a lot of independents. And fast food is seeing its market share move around. (Ronald McDonald has seen better days.) Who is doing well? Your Chipotles, Paneras, Five Guys, the so-called fast casuals, which Balzer says are “kicking butt.”
Between February 2010 and October 2014, restaurant employment grew 15.9 percent, while total U.S. employment rose 7.7 percent
“But basically every restaurant that has a waiter or waitress is in decline with the exception of fine dining and fine dining is going through the roof.”
Only the tiniest fraction of restaurant visits go to fine dining, he says, but that “one and half percent is doing very well.”
Which is good news for Turner. He wouldn’t call his restaurants fine dining, per se. They are not white-tablecloth, two-hour, $200 meals, he says, but the food is locally-sourced, when possible, made-from-scratch — and labor intensive.
“We make our own stock. We make our own mayo. If we serve fish, we get a whole fish and check its eyes, its gills. We smell it and filet it. We don’t buy precut filets . . . You need more people in food prep. You have more servers, server assistants filling waters, taking care of all those critical details that make or break a dining experience. There is simply more need for humans, who can’t be replaced and, it’s the human connection we love about what we do.”
The demand, he says, is coming from the patron who wants that connection, who is more conscientious about where his or her food comes from and how it’s prepared.
“So, it’s not just about eating out,” Turner says. “It goes beyond the transaction of filling the belly.”
As with politics, all eating is local. Region matters. Demographics matter. Cities well-placed to ride the return-to-the-core wave and the rise of the millennials are seeing vibrant restaurant scenes. Denver is going gangbusters. In Atlanta, low occupancy costs, a recovering construction industry, an unsated Southern food, farm-to-table consumer appetite, more dual-income households and even lower gas prices have come together to contribute to the resurging restaurant climate, says Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association.
Americans generally remain in “recession mindset,” the National Restaurant Association’s Grindy says. For most, the word “discretionary” has yet to find its rightful place before the word “income.” But, he points out, reasons exist to be hopeful. Trends in consumer confidence and spending bode well.
According to the U.S. Census, sales for “eating and drinking places,” has been steadily rising all year. In September, they topped $48 billion, the strongest monthly volume on record.