The Statistics of a “Food Renaissance”

I have been fascinated by these two infographics of late, because they are providing me some statistics to back up some ideas I’ve had for quite some time now.

(Of course the usual caveats surrounding infographics apply. They lack nuance, they only show one view of the data, the data may have been cherry-picked, etc, etc. For the purpose of this post, it would be prudent for me to caste an all-encompassing qualifier of “If the numbers bear out, then…”)

Fact one that you need to know for this post – the average median American household income for 2009 was $50,221. This is the top of the bell curve for household wages in America, and I’m using it here as a line in the sand (so to speak). Half of the households in the United States made less than $50,221per year.

Now, on average, those households that bring in less than $50k a year spend about $2209 per year dining out (see the third chart on this infographic). That translates to $184 per month. For a member of a household were to go out to eat once a week, that would translate to spending $46 for each visit. Twice a week? $23 per visit.

(And yes, each trip to Starbucks, and each beer grabbed at the local tavern were considered in this report. So, in my case…and I’m definitely an outlier…I visit a coffeeshop about 9 out of every 10 days, go to a bar about once a month, and have dinner out about two to three times a week. My dining out costs are higher than most.)

Even if we were to consider the average amount of money spent on eating out in America (which, unsurprisingly, increases dramatically when household income increases above $70,000 per year), the numbers don’t move all that much. Americans spend, on average $2736 per year eating out. This translates to $228 per month, and $57 per visit if eating out once per week, and $28.50 if eating out twice per week.

Now, as a point of context, let me provide some numbers for you for some more popular restaurants in America.

Restaurant – Palace Kitchen. City – Seattle. Price for a dinner with drink & dessert? About $35 per person.

Restaurant – Frances (1 Michelin Star). City – San Francisco. Price for a dinner with drink & dessert? About $42 per person.

Restaurant – Picholine (2 Michelin Stars). City – New York. Price for a dinner with drink & dessert? About $72 per person.

Restaurant – Aalinea (3 Michelin Stars). City – Chicago. Price for Prix Fixe? About $210 per person.

Restaurant – The French Laundry (3 Michelin Stars). City – Yountville, CA. Price for Prix Fixe? About $270 per person.

My point here is not to pick on these fine establishments. Rather, it’s to point out, that the great majority of people in America don’t go to restaurants such as these on a regular basis, if even at all. The statistics just don’t support this sort of behavior. Yes, there are outliers, to be sure. But these are the folks who are on the far end of the bell curve.

What this all means is that the great majority of press surrounding restaurants affect a minority of people in this country. Even here in Seattle, where we spend on $3810 per year on dining out ($317.50 per month, $79.38 per visit when eating out once a week, or $39.69 if eating out twice a week), a great majority of folks wouldn’t know Ethan Stowell from Jason Franey.

For people trying to get a grasp on American food culture, understanding these numbers is critical. If we’re going to say we’re in the midst of a culinary rennaissance, as the Christian Science Monitor recently did, then it would be good to know what the average American adds to our culinary culture. From the article:

America is, quite simply, fascinated by food in a way it never has been. We have become a nation of “foodies” who celebrate, debate, pursue, and show off knowledge of what we eat and how to make it. We’re watching food shows endlessly on TV. We’re enrolling in cooking classes in record numbers. We’re loading our shelves with cookbooks and our e-mail with recipes for salt-crusted snapper. Our new celebrities aren’t LeBron James or Julia Roberts. They’re Bobby Flay and Southern food queen Paula Deen. In short, we have become something of a Sous-Chef Nation.

“We are witnessing the Italian Renaissance in food … an intellectual elevation that is turned into something durable through media,” says Krishnendu Ray, a food and nutrition expert at New York University. “The world of food today is exactly how the world of literature and painting evolved.”

Really? An Italian Renaissance in food? Please show me the numbers that support this. Because ultimately the food culture is defined by the foods that the majority of people can afford, not those that they wish they can afford. If I were a betting person, considering we live in a culture where nearly 1 in 10 food service experiences results in an order of pizza (if this site is to be believed), then this renaissance is far different state from what the Christian Science Monitor would have us believe.

UPDATE: Fixed a link reference and some wording.