Historically, supper is the meal that leads the restaurant industry out of recessions, but that won’t be the case this time, according to a new study byThe NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. Supper is the restaurant industry’s largest sales generator but has been the weakest performing meal period for the past decade, says NPD.

NPD says multiple factors have contributed to the decline in supper visits. Among the most important factors is that the aging of the U.S. population has resulted in a fundamental shift in the profile of supper restaurant users.

The study suggests that whereas younger consumer groups had and continue to have the highest usage frequency of restaurant suppers, 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 supper 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,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst and author of theGetting a Grip on the Supper Marketstudy. “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.”

In fact, Riggs says, supper visits have been cut back by all but the most mature age group. 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,” Riggs says. “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.”