Dining dollars tighten, home ‘chefs' blossom
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - Lobster. Aged steaks. From-scratch pasta.
Not to be flip, but the tough times are having an effect no one predicted:
Cooking. At home. By you.
Cooking classes are packed. Sales of cooking magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appetit have been up since last summer. Sales of good-quality ingredients and cookware are doing fine, too, even as high-end restaurants close _ like Morton's The Steakhouse in Charlotte, N.C.'s SouthPark.
We may be watching our wallets by skipping the high cost of dining out, but some of us are apparently rewarding ourselves by trying to cook better at home.
"As the economy is going down, we're going up," says Vic Giroux, owner of What's Your Beef?, a Waxhaw, N.C., butcher that specializes in high-quality meat and poultry. "Perfect example _ Valentine's Day. We had a line out the door."
At Cooking Uptown, the cookware shop on Seventh Street in Elizabeth, N.C., owner Karen Cooley saw sales spike at Valentine's for the first time ever.
"It was practical gifts, versus flowers that die and chocolate. It was very strange _ it was like Christmas for me."
And that's the key to the whole thing, say many retailers who watch the food economy from the inside: quality. We're not buying much, but what we're buying is choice.
"They're not going out and just buying rice and beans, like we did in the early '70s and '80s, when the economy was just as bad," says Giroux.
Cooley has had no trouble filling up classes like the one she offered Saturday on cooking with lobster.
John Walker of Indian Trail, N.C., was one of the students. Walker, a land surveyor, does the cooking for his family, which includes his wife and their two small children.
"A lobster dinner would cost you $45 or $50," he says. "You can cut that in half if you do it at home."
And spending the money on a class means he gets a skill he can share with his family, he says. After an Italian cooking class last year, he started making pasta once a month with his 5-year-old daughter.
"Instead of going out and dropping a hundred bucks, you can do it at home and get your kids into it. And sit down at the table, like we used to. It's better," he says.
Maria Kartsaklis, 34, who was in the same class with Walker, says cooking at home has become part of her social life.
"A lot of my friends have been doing things at home more, just to save money." She didn't take much convincing, she says. "I looked at my (Bank of America) debit card online and saw how many times I go out to eat. And I thought, 'That's where your money's going.' "
Nationally, it's part of a bigger trend that has been pushing us back home for dinner for a while, says Harry Balzer, vice president of the consumer research company NPD Group.
Since 2001, he says, the percentage of women working full time or part time while their children are young has hit a peak and started declining. When families have only one wage-earner, they make more frugal choices.
"It's being exposed by the economy," he says. "But it's been going on for years."
Since we spend half of our food dollar in restaurants and half at the supermarket, Balzer says, the quickest way to save money is to skip restaurants.
"I think the driving force right now is, 'How can I moderate food costs?,' not just how to make it cheaper. The easiest way is to have supper at home."
That also may be the reasoning behind our turn toward cooking as something that brings value.
Susanna Linse, a spokeswoman for the national cookware chain Sur La Table, says sales are up 4.9 percent this year, and fiscal 2008 showed a similar increase.
Kimberley Campo, the manager of Sur La Table's SouthPark store, says people aren't throwing their money around. But she's encountering customers who are willing to make a step up in what they're buying to get something that will last longer and perform better.
"We have high interest in our clearance area," she says. "But they're looking for value as opposed to what's cheapest."
© 2009, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
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