The Rise of the Lone Diner
Restaurants are seeing a sharp rise in tables for one. Who are these lone diners, and why is this a growing trend?
Humans may be social animals by nature, but a record 35 million Americans now live alone. The trend towards smaller households is driven in large part by the growing independence of working women and older people who in the past might have been forced by economic necessity or social convention to either marry or live with relatives.
One in seven adult Americans now lives alone, accounting for 28% of the nation’s households. At this rate of growth, by 2020 one in three households will consist of someone living alone.
Each year the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveys over 30,000 US households and asks them how much they spent on a vast array of goods and services, including meals at restaurants.
One reason for the trend in dining out is the changing nature of work. Millions of people have managerial, professional or other white-collar service sector jobs where travel for work and dining out is often part of their job.
Responses from the most recent of the BLS surveys reveal that the average American household of 2.5 people spent about $130 a week – 11.6% of their after-tax income – on food, of which $76.40 was spent on food to be eaten at home and $53.60 – 41.2% of the total – was spent in restaurants.
Those same surveys show that, by comparison, one-person households spent a higher percentage on food in general, and in more on eating out. Single people reported an average of $70 a week for food – 12.5% of their after-tax income – and about $29.50 a week – 42.2% of their total food spending – on meals away from home.
Thirty five million single people spending an average of $29.50 a week eating out add up to a market segment worth over $53 billion a year to the food service industry.
A market segment that large deserves some closer examination. Who are these people who choose to live alone? A survey of about 150,000 households conducted every March by the US Census Bureau provides answers.
Homes occupied by just one person have risen 40% over the past 20 years – double the rate of increase for all other households.
The Census Bureau’s March 2015 survey tell us that there are about 125 million households nationwide. Among those are 19.5 million women and 15.5 million men who live alone. The average age of men who live alone is 52 years, near the all-household average of 51 years.
But the average age of women who live alone is 61 years. Part of this nine year difference is the fact that nationwide women live longer than men. That largely explains why there are more than 4 million more women age 70 or older living alone than there are men living alone.
The BLS surveys reveal that men who live alone obtain about 55% of the average US household income, while women who live alone receive just 45% of average household income. It would be reasonable to expect that with less income and 1.5 fewer people than all households nationwide, they would spend less on food. Specifically we might expect that single men would spend about 55% of average on food and women would spend about 45% of average on food both at home and in restaurants.
Both single men and women spend about the same on lunch, but men spend a lot more on dinner. Perhaps at dinner they more often pick up the check? The surveys tell us only how much money was spent; no questions were asked about why they spent it.
Single men also spend far more than women on snacks and take-out food. In fact, the data show that single men spend almost as much as a 2.5 person household on take-out food. A casual reader of these survey results might get the impression that most single men prefer that someone else prepare their food.
Another interesting finding is that single people spend much more than expected on breakfast. Women spend 52% of average on breakfast out, while men spend 85% of the all household average at places that serve breakfast or brunch.
The older age distribution of single women strongly suggests that a solid majority of them are grandmothers. That may explain why single women spend so much more than their limited income would suggest on food at home – they’re cooking for their grandchildren.
In any case, it is clear from these surveys that men and women who live alone are a lot more important to the restaurant industry and grocery stores than their one person households and below-average income would suggest.
The sharp rise in single people is profoundly changing how Americans dine out. Leaders in the food industry are taking note and, if they are wise, will carefully consider how to best accommodate this interesting trend.