Food

Check Out Wacky Foodie City Ratings, as Americans Spend More Money on Restaurants Than on Groceries

Survey thinks that Orlando is the best city for eating out—but hmm, NYC and LA ranked #54 and #53.

Group Of Young Friends Enjoying Meal In Outdoor Restaurant
Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Since the late '90s, spending at restaurants has slowly chased the amounts we spend at the supermarket. Finally, in June 2015, U.S. census data confirmed that Americans are spending more at restaurants than on groceries.

2016 brought the first decline in grocery prices since 1967, with meat, dairy, eggs and produce all dropping in price, which could explain part of the discrepancy in spending patterns. But still, if the cost of food is becoming cheaper (luxury ingredients not included), why are Americans spending half of their food budgets eating out? Especially when restaurant sales have actually been decreasing?

"Restaurants are at a distinct disadvantage when compared with grocery stores," Jonathan Maze explained in Nation's Restaurant News. "Because restaurants are so labor intensive, labor costs are a bigger concern for that industry. So rising minimum wage and other labor costs are putting pressure on operators to keep raising prices."

To some, visiting a restaurant may be a form of entertainment, a hobby or a way to socialize or network to invest in friendships and relationships, which may rationalize dedicating a larger part of one's budget to spending at restaurants. But with the average millennial spending only 20 minutes a day on meal prep, it's easy to see how lack of time or cooking skill with younger generations may also be driving the restaurant craze.

recent Skift report showed that cities across America are using food tourism to lure in curious tourists, be that through a drive down the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or the Finger Lakes wine trail, a local market tour or a guided Segway experience of a city’s most cherished snacks and sweets. We can thank food pioneers like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern (and maybe the Instagram app), but for many, seeing a city consists of tasting it too. Would you really visit Nashville and miss an opportunity to try the best hot chicken? Or skip out on Austin’s beloved queso or New York city’s famous pizza joints and bagels, and more recently, the cronut? Rather than merely providing fuel for exploration, the discovery and enjoyment of the food itself is the thrill that many travelers are seeking.

If you're willing to let restaurants eat away at your personal budget, a visit to one of America’s top food cities may be on your plate.

WalletHub looked at 21 key metrics, ranging from diversity of restaurants to sales tax to accessibility and number of butcher shops, craft breweries and beyond to determine the 150 best (and worst) food cities in America.

The results: Orlando leads the list, with Portland, Miami, Tampa and San Francisco trailing closely behind. Major food cities like Los Angeles and New York clocked in at #53 and #54 respectively, succeeded by cities from every region of the country, including, perhaps surprisingly, Salt Lake City (#8), Rochester (#11), Buffalo (#19) and Cleveland (#32). Other buzzy food cities often seen on trend lists at places like Zagat and Food & Wine, like Austin, Seattle, Oakland and New Orleans, also topped NYC and LA.

Source: WalletHub

WalletHub’s data can also be arranged to see how cities rank in affordability, which may be the key to actually enjoying the food in these tasty cities. None of the top 10 cities make it into the top 10 for affordability, though Portland (#2), ranks at #12 for affordability. Leading the affordability list is Houston, followed by Austin, Louisville, Albuquerque, Milwaukee and Detroit.

To those working in the Houston food scene, the top ranking for affordability comes as no surprise.

“Houston is absolutely an affordable city. It’s the most diverse city in the country, which means our options are endless—we have so much more than just fine dining,” said Chris Shepherd, chef/owner of Houston’s Underbelly and One Fifth. "We have pho shops on almost every corner, great tacos, dim sum halls that seat upwards of 1,000 people. With all of that variety, there’s no need to spend a lot of money every time you go out to eat."

Shepherd notes that Houston has changed as a food city, as both chefs and diners embrace diversity. "I run into my customers now in Chinatown, which is so cool," he said. Notable chefs who are also native to Houston are returning to the city with hometown pride, like Seth Siegel-Gardner of The Pass and Provisions and others are starting their careers in local restaurants as they work their way up to opening their own spots. "There's a lot of passion in the food scene here right now. We're all really proud to be in Houston, and we're all excited to see where we're going," Shepherd said.

When it comes to ranking restaurant and food destinations, however, data may not be as helpful as actual human experience.

"I think these rankings are way off base," Andrew Zimmern, who travels thoughought America and the world for his Travel Channel show Bizzare Foods, said. “The best food cities in America ranked are middling at best—NYC at #54—that's the greatest food city on planet earth.”

Zimmern also believes New York’s Queens borough qualifies as one of America’s top 10 cities for food. Also on his list are greater New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Minneapolis, Nashville, Charleston, Miami and Seattle. Zimmern said the WalletHub list "seems impractical, at best, to any serious eater.​"

Looking forward, Americans' interest and investment in dining out, though not necessarily good for the country’s obesity epidemic, could be a positive boost to small business owners and those seeking employment. The National Restaurant Association postulates that 1.7 million restaurant jobs will be created by the year 2026. And it's not the major players that will be hiring. According to the association, 90 percent of restaurants have fewer than 50 employees and 70 percent are single-unit operations, meaning there is plenty of opportunity for small business owners here. For those who cannot raise the capital to invest in independent business ventures, there is still space for upward mobility: 9 out of 10 restaurant managers started at entry level.

Whether or not our growing national obsession with restaurants and dining out could help revitalize the economy remains unclear. But it's already revitalizing our connection to different kinds of cuisines, and time spent exploring new foods with family and friends is always time well spent.

Melissa Kravitz is a writer in New York City who writes about food and culture for First We Feast, Thrillist, Elite Daily, Edible, and other publications. 

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