Diners eating out more, but spending less on each meal, survey finds

diners spend more going out, but less on each meal...Here's some mixed news for the restaurant industry.

According to a March survey conducted by AlixPartners, a global business advisory firm, dining out frequency has increased among U.S. consumers. The not so good news -- diners are spending less on each meal, avoiding buying breakfast, and many are shopping for coupons and cheaper options such as shelf food from convenience stores.

The survey found that consumers expect to spend about $11.60 per meal at restaurants over the coming year. That's down 21% from $14.70 per meal diners spent in pre-recession 2008, and down about 4% from the $12.10 in average meal price consumers say they spent in 2009.

The news could be troublesome for the restaurant industry , which has been hit hard by the anorexic economy. Rising food costs, liquidity issues due to recession-ravaged company balance sheets and a level of consumer frugality that still has not abated threaten the industry's fledgling recovery, AlixPartners LLP said in a release.

"This continuing price sensitivity illustrates a chasm between pre- and post-recessionary consumer expectations," wrote Andy Eversbusch, a managing director at AlixPartners and head of the firm's Restaurant & Foodservice Practice in the release. "It is, by some measures, due to what we dub the 'Subway Effect,' (Subway's $5 foot-long sandwich) which has led to a jump in the number of consumers who anticipate spending $5 or less per out-of-home meal."

So no surprises that chains line McDonald's and Burger King are rolling out value meals. Consumers want to see signs of economic recovery and better value for their dollar before they cough up more dollars at restaurants, according to AlixPartners. Dipping food costs helped the industry respect diners' wishes and dole out value meals last year. The trend continues this year. But as food prices creep up, will we see the deals dry up?

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