Dining Out Poses Problems in 2024

Restaurant owners — from fast casual to fine dining and everything in between — are facing some real struggles these days.

New Jerseyans just are not eating out as often as we once did.

Fast food items like hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and pizza
If this picture doesn't make you hungry, the rest of this article definitely will. (wildpixel)

This trend, which has been noted across the nation and the globe, comes down to three prominent factors:

1.) The rising cost of literally everything, due to inflationary pressures and on-going supply challenges.

2.) Defined meal periods — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — are more fuzzy due to shifts in work and personal schedules.

3.) A more health conscious population, aiming for smaller and healthier meals in general.

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A New Trend

According to an article from Nation's Restaurant News, an independent publication for the food service industry, these issues are directly affecting how restaurants plan their menus and run their business.

Specifically, they describe eating out as an "escape," now more than ever.

Large group of friends having fun and drinking beer at a restaurant
Cheers! Even though wallets are tight and dollars are stretched, New Jerseyans still love to gather to eat and drink together. (Antonio_Diaz)

Robert Byrne, director of consumer and industry insights at Technomic, said "Consumers love restaurants and enjoy treating themselves to foodservice whenever possible. As the cost of a meal becomes a barrier to purchase... consumers will increasingly turn to lower cost snacking options to satisfy their cravings for some type of restaurant purchase."

Yes, the new expected trend in restaurants is snacking. Specifically, afternoon snacks, which have apparently seen a spike in growth over the past year compared to morning snacking and late-night snacking. "Happy Hour" is apparently a happy time to eat in New Jersey. (Yup, there are apparently people who track this stuff.)

Charcuterie board filled with an assortment of food.
A perfect example of the global snacking craze: Charcuterie. (MichellePatrickPhotographyLLC)

“Consumers continue to confound economists and defy expectations for slower spending at foodservice. Although it is discretionary, it may be one of the least expensive indulgences available to all consumers,” Byrne also said. “I believe that if a consumer has $10 in their pocket, they will spend it at foodservice. If that $10 won’t buy me a meal, I will still use it and purchase what I can – which increasingly may be more of a snack item.”

In other words, New Jerseyans are more likely to pick up a quick afternoon snack than they are to dine out for a full meal. Such snacks can extend from savory to sweet, and from simple to gourmet. In some instances, consumers are replacing a meal with a snack for a cheaper and (often) lighter substitute.

Examples Across the Garden State

Look at all the businesses around the Garden State who benefit from this trend.

Wawa, Quickchek, Dunkin, and Starbucks come to mind immediately. Not only because of the growing variety of edible snacks they offer, but also because of their flourishing specialty drinks business.

(Photo via New Bedford/Fall River)
(Photo via New Bedford/Fall River)

It also explains the rise in restaurants specializing in smoothies, pretzels, specialty cookies, and even ice cream. From shopping malls to strip malls to rest stops to standalone storefronts, there is no shortage of options when you need a sugar or caffeine kick.

Woman serving ice cream in Confectionery shop
Specialty and gourmet ice cream shops have been capitalizing on the public's desire for non-meal dining options. (Kerkez)

And not all "snack places" are chains and franchises, by the way. Establishments ranging from bars to tapas restaurants can easily adapt their menu to offer snacks, appetizers, and small plate specials.

Classic NJ diners are poised to take advantage of this trend too, often offering a large menu of both meal and snacky options. (I have fond memories in my high school and college years of late-night appetizers at our favorite diner.)

Whatever the reason and whether this trend holds into 2025 and beyond, happy snacking!

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Gallery Credit: Paul Feinstein

Dan Zarrow is Chief Meteorologist for Townsquare Media New Jersey. Check out Dan's weather blog or follow him on Facebook for your latest weather forecast updates.

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