By the time he's driven to the farmers' market, bought the organic veggies, and spent an hour of his time cooking a meal for himself and his wife, Mark Chernesky figures he's spent $30.
That's why today, after fighting rush hour, the Atlanta multimedia coordinator is rushing in to Figo's, a pasta place, for handstuffed ravioli slathered with puttanesca sauce. "I'll get out of here for $17 plus tip," he says.
Crunch the numbers and all across America the refrain is the same: Eating out is the new eating in. Even with wages stagnant, time-strapped workers are abandoning the family kitchen in droves.
"When I add my hourly rate, the time to cook at home, I can instead take my family out to dinner and it comes out pretty even," says Paul Howard, a manager-instructor at Café Laura, a restaurant run by college students at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.
Yet restaurants contend with concerns about poor service as well as oversized portions, which contribute to expanding waistlines of Americans. And some Americans still find that cooking their own food at home is less expensive than going out.
But many are choosing to eat out because they don't have time to cook for themselves and their families. For example, 60 percent of mothers work outside the home. Leaving Mom's family table for plasma-TV plastered lounges is also about the capitalism of the kitchen: Restaurateurs are absorbing rising food and gas costs and even inflation to keep their menu prices low for patrons.
For the first time this year, American restaurants will bring in above a half-trillion dollars in total sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. The US has about 925,000 restaurants and at least 8,000 are added each year.