Four-year-old Kevin White of Richmond, Calif., is enjoying that all-American event, a birthday party at McDonald's. Wearing a Ronald McDonald birthday hat and clutching a fistful of French fries, he gets ready to whisk down the slide in the restaurant's kiddy playground, while his mother Cynthia stands by with envy. "One day I hope that Kevin will appreciate my cooking," she says. "But for now, I can't even compete with a Big Mac and fries."
She may not be able to compete, but a burgeoning number of entrepreneurs think they can. Americans are eating out more than ever, and more than ever they are eating fast food. Since Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald's in a Chicago suburb back in 1955 (burgers: 15¢), fast food has grown to a $45 billion business. The increase from ten years ago is nearly fourfold. From burgers to fried chicken to pizza, fast food has become the quintessentially American dining experience: a perfect expression of those bedrock values of efficiency, thriftiness and speed.
But the fast-food business is changing, trying to overcome its traditional junk-food image. It is vying for a place in the dining mainstream. Menus are expanding and restaurants are sprucing up to attract a more upscale crowd. "A few years ago, fast-food places looked like a mess hall with booths all lined up in a row," says Jeff Campbell, chairman of Burger King, the nation's second largest chain. "People want more these days."
What they seem to want, more than anything, is to get out of the house for dinner. Nothing is more American today than avoiding a home-cooked meal. According to figures compiled by the National Restaurant Association, the average family spent 39.5% of its food dollar on restaurants in 1983, up from 33.1% in 1970. The typical American now eats out 3.7 times a week. From the trendy bistros of Manhattan's East Side to the ubiquitous "franchise row" that lines the main drag on the outskirts of Anytown, U.S.A., eating out is in.
Changing life-styles have contributed to the eating-out boom. There are more one-parent households, more working mothers, more fast-tracking singles who have little time or inclination for an evening over a hot stove. "People eat out more because they are out of the house more," says Carl DeBiase, a partner in the research firm Restaurant Trends. For city dwellers, many of whom live alone in cramped apartments, restaurants have become a place to escape and socialize. "As rents skyrocket and the amount of space per person dwindles, the American kitchen has lost priority in urban centers," says Peter DuPré, general manager of Amsterdam's Bar and Rotisserie, one of Manhattan's hot new restaurants. "We are starting to experience the first generation brought up on restaurant food."