Wednesday, February 18, 2009

CPAs' PSA: Avoid restaurants

If the restaurant industry was irate over Suze Orman’s recommendation that consumers avoid dining out for a month, it may have to be searched for weapons after it hears about the public service campaign being waged by a national accountants’ group. The program,, is intended to help the public save money through easy, simple actions. Like foregoing trips to restaurants, or bringing your lunch to work instead of buying it.

The message is being delivered not only through the website, but also in a series of ads produced by The Advertising Council, a trade group, in collaboration with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. All attempt to help consumers improve their financial situation by cutting expenditures and putting the savings in safe interest-bearing investments.

One of the program’s more intriguing elements is showing consumers how much they can make by changing their spendthrift ways. For instance, a calculator featured on the website allows visitors to compute what they spend on restaurants in a typical month. Using that figure, it then calculates what the money would earn if it was banked. The example cited shows a restaurant patron having squirreled away $22,000 over five years just from skipping restaurant visits.

One of the criticisms leveled at Orman, the popular personal-finance guru, was her singling out of restaurants as the luxury that should be skipped. (the name is a reference to feeding a piggybank) is not nearly so selective. It recommends a reconsideration of everything from buying gadgets to splurging for makeup.

“Which spending habit are we gonna smash first?” asks Benjamin, the piggybank icon that narrates the web site.

But five of the broad advice categories squarely hit restaurants: Dining Out (“Instead of going out, cook at home with friends.”), Lunch Buying, Latte-a-Day, Takeout (“Buy instant meals at the grocery store, they are cheaper and efficient.”) and Bottled Beverages (“Get a counter-top carbonator and make your own, healthy soft drinks.”)

The website is aimed at adults, but links to a site for “tweens,” where a game teaches children how to save. The AICPA and the Ad Council have also set up a password-protected site as a resource for teachers.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to turn Benjamin into bacon. But the sort of anger shown by the business over Orman’s recommendation needs to be put aside. is well intentioned, and helping consumers cut their expenses, including their outlays for restaurant food, is no more diabolical than restaurateurs trimming their light bills, labor expenses or supply charges. The industry has to bear in mind that everyone is struggling in this environment. The effort by the AICPA and the Ad Council is merely striving to help the public in that effort.

But, of course, restaurants are part of the public, too. Still, if the foodservice industry wants to counter efforts like, it has to focus on what marketers dub the value proposition—why it’s still worthwhile for consumers to dine out. Maybe restaurateurs need to remind hard-pressed patrons that restaurant meals are still a relatively inexpensive indulgence, all the more appreciable in these trying times. Or a great way to save time. Or an opportunity for the family to share quality time, instead of having Mom or Dad frantically slapping together a meal while everyone else snorks down their meal.

But finding a noose and a stout branch? Nah. That’s just not the way to go. The industry has to start fending off the dining-out naysayers with a counterargument, not an how-dare-you attack.

1 comment:

James Kohn, said...

As a restaurant industry professional, this is a bitter pill to swallow. As just another guy trying to deal with the economy and the fear of what might be coming our way in the near future, it's hard to argue the point. I shaved my home budget significantly by better managing our dining out dollars.

Restaurants, like every other industry, are going to have to learn to deal with this new reality. Why curse the darkness? Instead, we must figure out what we can do to gain the advantage in an increasingly competitive environment. I would caution against increased advertising and excessive discounting. Instead, concentrate on providing customer service that exceeds what customers expect. If you're blowing your customers away with extraordinary service, there's a good chance you're blowing away the competition as well. -James Kohn,