CHICAGO – Dinner has historically been the meal occasion that leads the restaurant industry out of recessions, but this will not be the case regarding the current recession, according to a new study by The NPD Group, a leading market research company. NPD reports that dinner is the restaurant industry’s largest sales generator, but has been the weakest performing meal period for the past decade.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline in dinner visits, according to the NPD restaurant market research study, which examines how the supper market weakened and analyzes how each generation uses restaurants. One of the most important factors is the aging of the U.S. population has resulted in a fundamental shift in the profile of dinner restaurant users. The study states that whereas younger consumer groups had and continue to have the highest usage frequency of restaurant dinners, their pullback on usage has narrowed the frequency gap – and the sheer number of aging Boomers has increased the importance of more mature adults to the dinner occasion.

“The fact that older consumers make up a larger portion of the population – and are lighter restaurant supper users – is part of the explanation for this slip in per capita visits, but not the full explanation,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst and author of the Getting a Grip on the Supper Market study. “Even if you subtract out the changing age composition of the population, restaurant usage for supper would still be slipping. While this is especially notable since the recession began, it was also visible between 2002 and 2007

Dinner visits have been cut back by all but the most mature age group, Ms. Riggs said. The heaviest restaurant supper customers – the 18-to-24 and 25-to-34 age groups – have cut back the most, dropping 13 visits per year, respectively, over the last eight years. Even before the current economic situation, consumers were shifting how they addressed their needs to feed themselves and their families at supper.

“What this all means for restaurant operators is that they can’t control population trends, but they can influence buying rate momentum by understanding the levers that appeal to their target customers,” Ms. Riggs said. “Through product and concept innovations, availability, understanding their consumers’ value perceptions, right pricing, and targeted messaging, they can re-attract consumers to restaurants for supper.”