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For many, the fastest food is back at home

Why do people eat where they do? That question is of more than passing interest to food industry consultants William Hale and T. Brandon Gill. While both are situated in the Boston area, their analysis embraces the whole of the United States.

Mr. Hale, head of the Hale Group consulting firm, has for a number of years traced the proportion of Americans who eat in restaurants rather than at home. For a long period, the number of people eating out grew steadily. Then in 1982 and '83, those figures started to decline, he says. Simultaneously, the number of people having prepared food delivered to their homes started to increase. Home delivery is ``pretty widespread, and likely to be something you'll see a lot more of,'' says Hale.

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The basic reasons for this trend spring from demographic change, according to Mr. Gill, an consultant based in Cambridge, Mass. ``The number of families with both parents working is at an all-time high,'' he says. ``For a lot of people who end up coming home at the same time, the preparation of food is no longer considered an art, but an unfortunate necessity.''

Under these conditions, people are quite happy to have their food prepared elsewhere. Hence the rise in home delivery, the expansion of frozen dinners on supermarket shelves, and the ``explosion,'' in Gill's words, of restaurant and particularly fast-food patronage.

Time is of the essence when it comes to current eating habits, both consultants say. ``The amount of time associated with meals is a major concern,'' notes Gill. ``And typically, people don't save that much time by going out to eat. The advantage of that is spontaneity.'' The decision to go to a restaurant, in other words, can be made quickly, with minor fuss.

But those most concerned about saving time are apt to be attracted to the home delivery option, which involves no preparation time, plus no travel time or lingering minutes spent getting the family into the car.

The day-to-day inconveniences of urban living come strongly into play, says Hale. Increasingly, with problems of heavy traffic and waiting, ``there's a little bit of a hassle to eating out.''

Aren't the various kinds of home delivery options pretty much limited to families with hefty incomes?

Households with incomes of $40,000 and up are the most likely to buy food delivery services, says Hale. But the use of such services among that sizable group is becoming ``pretty well spread.'' Gill says the growth in dual-earner families has boosted many additional households into that range.

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The expansion in home food delivery businesses is centered in large urban areas, Hale adds. ``You have to have a certain density to make it work.''

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