Carrie Cherkinsky is fed up with the high cost of eating out.

After watching menu prices rise, the former restaurant manager has cut down her dining out by more than half.

“I was eating out six or seven times a week between lunch and dinner,” said Cherkinsky, a 35-year-old health-care recruiter who lives in downtown Orlando. “I’ve been saving tons from not going to restaurants as much, especially when you add up the food and drinks.”

It’s getting more expensive to eat out, while the cost of buying groceries is flat. While food costs are dropping, menu prices continue to rise because of pressure on wages and rent that restaurants pay. The cost of eating out is up about 2.1 percent in the last year, while grocery prices have barely budged, according to the July Consumer Price Index report. Some consumers are also trying to eat healthier by cooking at home, and more home delivery options are available. 

Meanwhile, the number of restaurants in Central Florida dropped by 2.4 percent over the last year, meaning 186 fewer eateries, according to data from consumer research firm NPD Group.

Grocery store prices aren’t rising because wholesale food costs are dropping, said Annemarie Kuhns, a senior food economist with the USDA. Lower fuel prices have sliced major expenses from farmers and favorable weather has decreased volatility in meat, vegetable and dairy markets.

A loaf of white bread is 2 cents cheaper than a year ago at $1.32, and eggs are 21 cents cheaper a dozen, according to the consumer price index.

Fruit and vegetable prices have also been flat over the last year, Kuhns said, while meat has gone up slightly. Put together, food prices have risen just 0.3 percent in the past year. 

“What we’ve found is that the largest portion of what we are spending in a restaurant goes more towards food service,” Kuhns said. “Only about 30 cents of every dollar pays for food.”

Consumers also have a lot more reasons to stay home today to eat, said David Portalatin, vice president and industry analyst for food for NPD Group. Online shopping has cut down on trips to the grocery store, streaming video keeps consumers at home and more workers are telecommuting.

“The retail landscape is being disrupted, and if you don’t need to travel to the store, you remove a huge reason for eating out,” Portalatin said.

Consumers aren’t just buying more food from grocery stores; they are eating restaurant food at home more through ramped-up restaurant carry-out and delivery programs.

“The American consumer is embracing spending more time at home,” he said.

Health is another motivation to eat at home, and grocery store spending is also shifting toward fresh fruits, vegetables and meat.

Kissimmee resident Joey Ramirez said he has nearly eliminated trips to restaurants to save money and eat better. It hasn’t always been easy. Ramirez said it can be cumbersome planning meals, making grocery lists and prepping the food.

“I would eat out four to five times a week and multiple times a day,” said Ramirez, 28, who works for an automotive parts shop. “When you add up the amount of money you spend, it gets up there. I’d spend maybe $30-$40 a day on food.”

Grocery and convenience stores have responded to shifting behavior by bulking up ready-to-eat foods and meal preparation options to try to get a bigger slice of the food spending pie.

In February, Publix began experimenting with meal kits at two stores in the Dr. Phillips neighborhood and Tampa. Publix also has made-to-order sushi stations at stores. Five new Lucky’s Market stores coming to the area will also have ramen noodle stations.

Restaurants haven’t been oblivious. Many local chains have bulked up carry-out programs as well and partnered with Uber and Amazon for delivery. Some chains, such as Tijuana Flats, started offering taco meal kits in July. It’s also revamping its app for mobile ordering, said Tijuana Flats CEO Larry Ryback.

“There’s no denying the trend,” he said. “We see it as a shift in our business and intend to meet the demand.”

Source: Orlando Sentinel