Dining In: Homemade Chili Gains Ground on Chili’s

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Sales at some of the country’s biggest restaurant chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Buffalo Wild Wings, to name a few — are slumping.

The culprit? People like John Reynolds, if you listen to restaurant executives.

A salesman for a convenience store distributor, Mr. Reynolds used to spend several evenings a week eating in New York restaurants with friends and relatives after making the rounds of customers in the city. But in the last year, he has taken to making turkey burgers or a pot of chili at home.

“It’s just a financial thing for me — eating out is expensive,” Mr. Reynolds, 31, said. “And eating at home more has actually had an additional benefit — it’s healthier.”

Such words strike terror into the heart of the restaurant industry, which has blamed a crash in food prices that has made groceries cheaper for its woes. Egg prices, for instance, hit a 10-year low this summer, and beef prices are lower than they have been in more than three years.

“If I’m not mistaken, it’s the biggest gap we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” Mike Andres, the departing president of McDonald’s American business, told reporters in July. “This is clearly impacting the whole eating-out industry.”

The gap between grocery and restaurant prices adds to a variety of other factors putting pressure on the restaurant business, especially the fast-food segment. Americans now have a greater interest in healthy foods. They also have more and better choices of prepared food in grocery stores, and many options for meal kit and grocery delivery services, all of which make eating at home easier.

It is unclear whether these changes add up to a temporary change or the start of a major reversal in where people eat. For the last couple of decades, the general direction of food spending in the United States has been toward restaurants, and in 2014, dining out eclipsed home cooking for the first time, according to the United States Agriculture Department.

“The reasons people are eating more away from home aren’t going away,” said Howard Elitzak, an agricultural economist at the U.S.D.A. “Women continue to enter the work force. People continue to work longer hours. Families have higher disposable income. Everyone wants convenience — these are very long-term trends.”

Yet the Agriculture Department statistics, and individual restaurant sales figures, strongly suggest that Americans are revisiting the kitchen table. In January, for instance, people spent more in supermarkets than in restaurants, an aberration that was repeated in June. (The department’s data from the Census Bureau is somewhat imprecise. For example, the supermarket numbers don’t include food bought at Walmart, America’s largest grocery chain.)

The National Restaurant Association estimates that restaurant sales will increase 5 percent this year, to $783 billion. But B. Hudson Riehle, a senior vice president of the trade group, noted that the growth rate of those sales has slowed since 2007, partly because of the recession that started around that time.

“It is still over all an environment where consumers continue to use restaurants, but for the industry, it’s a more moderate growth rate than in the past,” Mr. Riehle said.

To help compensate for sagging profits, many restaurants have been raising prices, even as the cost of food has declined. For instance, Zoe’s Kitchen, a Mediterranean-inspired chain of more than 150 stores, said its sales in restaurants open at least one year had grown 4 percent. But more than 3 percent of that gain came from price increases. Slightly less than 1 percent of its sales growth came from what the industry calls “traffic” — or more customers.

Diners have noticed. “I definitely feel like prices at restaurants have increased,” said Kathryn Shannon, who works at a financial services company in New York.

Ms. Shannon, 28, began cooking at home with deliveries from Blue Apron, a meal kit service, but now she just goes to the grocery store. If she does go out for dinner, it is to a restaurant where she can get something she wouldn’t make at home.

“I’m not going to buy a really nice cut of steak because I’ll probably screw it up,” Ms. Shannon said. “But I can make basic Chinese food that’s just as good as what I get on the corner and at a quarter of the price.”

Some high-end restaurants, where people like Ms. Shannon might go for a steak, don’t appear to be having the same problem as their far bigger fast-food cousins. Sabato Sagaria, the chief restaurant officer at the Union Square Hospitality Group, said he had noticed more tourists dining this summer in the company’s restaurants, which include Gramercy Tavern and Blue Smoke in Manhattan.

He expected that mix to change in the fall, when the regulars return. Nonetheless, he said, competition for customers has never been greater.

“Restaurants are competing with delivery services, meal kit companies, prepared foods in the grocery store, salad bars,” he said.

Jack Bishop, chief creative officer at America’s Test Kitchen, a media company that publishes Cook’s Illustrated and produces TV shows and events, said he had also noticed a difference among generations. Younger people, in his experience, seem to be more suspicious of food prepared by big corporations. And the rise of diet trends like Paleo, vegetarian and gluten-free also is spurring more home cooking, he said, because adherents have difficulty finding something they can eat on many menus.

“There’s also just an overall shift in the American diet to a healthier place,” he said. “After all, most of the worst trends in that diet over the last 20 years coincided with people eating less at home.”

One big question, of course, is whether America’s new cooks will stay in the kitchen once food prices at the grocery store rise again.

Inara Kalnins, a retired retail executive, said she had no plans to return to restaurants. She began cooking for herself about a year ago, after finding a deal for Blue Apron meal kits on Groupon, the online commerce site.

Before that, her stove was used to heat up leftovers from restaurants or a roast chicken from the grocery store. Now she’s in her kitchen three times a week, preparing meals from Blue Apron that she often shares with friends and neighbors.

“I’m chopping and zesting and eating foods I’ve never tried before,” she said, “with ingredients I would have never thought of buying, like Meyer lemons and watermelon radishes.”

When she vacationed with a friend on a remote island off the Maine coast this summer, the mail boat delivered Blue Apron meal kits.

“I’ve ordered so many times that I’m able to gift meal kits to friends,” Ms. Kalnins said. “I’ve given one to a friend whose wife passed away, and to my brother, who was used to eating out of a can.”