When I was kid, "What's for dinner?" was not a question you asked at the last minute. My mom, Dorothy Glinton, was an expert at planning what she would put on the table.
"I always knew what I was going to cook. I didn't come in running," Ma recalls.
But these days, even she eats out a few times a week. "But I don't go to a restaurant in the evening," she told me. "I do most of my eating in a grocery story right now, picking up a hot soup, going to a salad bar."
As The Salt has reported, grocery stores aren't just offering prepared foods. Some are even offering full sit-down experiences inside — what Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group, calls the "groceraunt."
According to the food data company Food Genius, as many as 80 percent of Americans don't know what they're having for dinner by 4 p.m. that same day. Groceraunts are just one of dozens of new options Americans have to help figure out that evening meal.
Those who crave home-cooking but don't have my mom's meal-planning prowess can turn to online services like Blue Apron, which delivers everything you need to make dinner — ingredients and recipes.
Of course, those who'd rather not faff around in the kitchen don't have to. There's food trucks, takeout, drive-throughs, or delivery ordered through one of many, many apps. Even old concepts like the cafeteria are getting revamped.
Recently, I visited Picnic L.A. in Culver City, Calif., with Eliot Silver and Noah Ellis — two restaurant guys who used to own a fancy-pants restaurant in Beverly Hills called Red Medicine. What made them go from running a high-end restaurant to opening what I have to call (no offense, I told them) a "high-end cafeteria"?
"Same reason we opened Red Medicine," Ellis said. "We wanted to open a restaurant we wanted to eat at."
For $15 at Picnic L.A., you can get an entree like poached salmon and two sides. Nearly everything on the menu is local and organic. Patrons move down a line and select the dishes they want. On a given night, Picnic L.A. might serve dinner to 150 people. They need only six employees to do that.
Picnic L.A. is a new type of restaurant that didn't exist a few years ago. But it, too, faces new competition in the "fast dinner" space, as companies like Uber and GrubHub team up with restaurants to offer delivery services.
"A restaurant operator can get into the delivery business without having to have the insurance, all the liability, all the things associated with it, because they can partner with one of these companies that deliver," Riggs said. "So it is a growth area, both in-home and away from home."
As these fast-casual options grow in popularity, visits to traditional fast-food chains are down, says NDP Group's Riggs. Meanwhile, prepared foods sold at supermarkets, big-box and convenience stores are a bigger and bigger portion of those companies' profits.
"I think it's cyclical, but it's evolutionary, too," says Silver. "I think people wanting better quality food, that's a forever thing. I think how they have that and the kind of dining experiences they want to have, that's cyclical."
NPR has teamed up with Youth Radio to explore the changing business of putting dinner on the table, fast. This is the first in a three-part series. What are your options for buying dinner in your area? What can you get for $5 or less? Share your photos of your #5dollarchallenge meal on Twitter or Instagram – be sure to flag @youthradio. (And remember to direct message @youthradio if you've got a private account!)
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here in Washington, it's getting late in the day. Do you know what you're having for dinner? According to the food data company Food Genius, as many as 80 percent of you don't. Answering that question is a growing business. In collaboration with Youth Radio, NPR's Sonari Glinton asked the age-old question, what's for dinner?
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Let's face it. Knowing what you're going to have for dinner ahead of time isn't nearly as important as it used to be. Increasingly, we're calling audibles. I'm standing in the parking lot at the new Shake Shack in West Hollywood, and it's just one of hundreds of choices I have in this neighborhood. Now, answering the question what's for dinner, it's pretty easy here. And that's true for a good part of the U.S. But that wasn't the case, say, I don't know, 30 years ago.
DOROTHY GLINTON: I knew what we were going to eat when I come out the grocery store on a Saturday all week.
S. GLINTON: That's my mama.
D. GLINTON: I am Dorothy Glinton. I'm Sonari Glinton's mother.
S. GLINTON: Look, once in a career you can put your own mom on the radio. And I'm doing it now because if there ever was an expert in putting food on the table, I telling you, it's Dorothy Glinton.
D. GLINTON: And cooking wasn't a big deal for me. And it wasn't - it was easy stuff. Put a pot roast in the oven while we did homework at night so the next day all I had to do was heat it up. And I always knew what I was going to cook. I didn't come in running.
S. GLINTON: Now, back then, I never ate fast food because I grew up with a mom who wouldn't allow it. Now, though, even she eats out on weeknights.
D. GLINTON: But I don't go to a restaurant when I - you know, in the evening. I do most of my eating in a grocery store now, picking up a hot soup, going to a salad bar.
BONNIE RIGGS: We're calling that groceraunt.
S. GLINTON: That's Bonnie Riggs. She's a restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group.
RIGGS: A groceraunt is a grocery store like a Mariano's that offers prepared meals for immediate consumption.
S. GLINTON: Riggs says grocery stores offering prepared meals are just one example. The point is how we answer that question, what's for dinner, it's changing.
RIGGS: I don't know if I'm going out to dinner or if I'm going to go home and cook. And I just have not been cooking as much lately as I have historically.
S. GLINTON: Well, that's because she doesn't have to. As she drives home from work, Riggs will pass hundreds of places offering high-quality, fresh food at reasonable prices - grocery stores, food trucks, takeout, drive-thrus. Even Uber delivers food. And old restaurant concepts, like the automat and the cafeteria, are making a comeback.
I'm at Picnic LA with Elliott Silver and Noah Ellis and - the two restaurant guys who used to own a fancy pants restaurant in Beverly Hills. What was the name of it?
ELLIOTT SILVER: Red Medicine.
S. GLINTON: What made you go from wanting to, like, open a high-end restaurant to opening what is a - what I have to - no offense - I have to call a high-end cafeteria?
SILVER: Same reason we opened Red Medicine. We wanted to open a restaurant we wanted to eat at.
S. GLINTON: For 15 bucks at Picnic LA in Culver City, you can get an entree like poached salmon and two sides. Think cafeteria but really nice - local, organic and a little hipster.
NOAH ELLIS: So we try to display the produce, right? We've got Weiser Farm potatoes, par-cooked, the little gems just came in, the asparagus from Zuckerman's, fennel from JF Organics.
S. GLINTON: One reason Silver and Ellis did not start another full-service restaurant is labor costs. The minimum wage is going up. Picnic LA might serve, say, 150 people tonight. They will need just six employees to do that.
ELLIS: We were eating in sort of higher end restaurants and just wanted to make it more accessible.
S. GLINTON: Now, Picnic LA is a new type of restaurant that didn't exist a few years ago. But it too faces competition.
MATT SALZBERG: My name is Matt Salzberg, and I am a co-founder and CEO of Blue Apron.
S. GLINTON: Blue Apron is an online service that delivers the ingredients and recipes, everything you need to make your dinner.
SALZBERG: Interest in food is higher than it's ever been, but culinary skills are ironically lower than they've ever been.
S. GLINTON: The Food Channel, Martha Stewart and even Rachael Ray have helped give us more knowledge about food and culinary culture. But our schedules are keeping us from practicing our cooking skills in our own kitchens.
SALZBERG: We like to cook but we found it expensive. We found it difficult to assemble ingredients. And we found it inaccessible.
S. GLINTON: Blue apron isn't the only new food delivery service. GrubHub, AmazonFresh, even Uber is getting in on the dinner game says Bonnie Riggs.
RIGGS: A restaurant operator can get into the delivery business now without having to have the - all of the liability, all the things associated with it 'cause they can partner with one of these companies that deliver. So it is a growth area, both in-home and away from home.
S. GLINTON: Riggs points out that visits to traditional fast-food chains are down while fast-casual is up. Prepared foods at big-box stores, convenience stores and grocery stores are bigger and bigger portions of those companies' profit. If a few short years ago the hipsters were opening farm-to-table restaurants, now it's all fast-casual and high-end cafeterias. Again, Elliot Silver.
SILVER: I think it's cyclical, but it's evolutionary too. Like, I think people wanting better quality food, that's a forever thing. I think how they have that and the kind of dining experiences they want to have, that's cyclical.
S. GLINTON: Silver and Ellis say they see about 10 years left in the fast-casual boom before we all turn to the next thing. I asked them if they thought the more mature players - you know, McDonald's and Chipotle, et cetera - should be afraid of the competition.
ELLIS: If they're willing to really look at what's going on, they can certainly come up with anything that's competitive in a heartbeat. You know, it'd be really arrogant to say, you know, these multi-multi-multibillion-dollar companies need to worry about something like us.
S. GLINTON: In Los Angeles, there are dozens of these restaurants based on some mix of farm to table and quick service. Ellis and Silver say it's a new space where the small guy can compete and maybe be the one that comes up with the next big thing because now that consumers can see the choices, they'll keep asking for more. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, West Hollywood.
CORNISH: That story was produced and recorded in collaboration with Youth Radio. It's part of a series we're calling Fast Food Scramble.
Now it's your turn. Youth Radio is challenging you to find meals in your area that you can get for $5 or less.
CORNISH: Be creative. They'll put the most surprising meals on a map that we'll share on npr.org.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Here's how it works. Go to Twitter or Instagram...
CORNISH: Send a photo of your meal, say what it is, where you bought it and how much you paid.
SIEGEL: That's it. Just make sure that you mention @youthradio and use the hashtag #5dollarchallenge. That's the number five and the words dollar challenge.
CORNISH: The $5 challenge is on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.