New trends at chain restaurants reflect changing attitudes
Eating out isn't just for special occasions anymore; it's now the American way of life. We'll spend an estimated $720 billion at restaurants this year, up 19 percent from 2012.
Consumer Reports recently conducted a survey that represents the largest sit-down restaurant ratings ever reported by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. The survey reflects the experiences of 68,950 subscribers who frequented a record 238 restaurant chains and had 170,838 meals.
Consumer Reports found that, to attract and keep more customers, food establishments are trying to evolve. It found four major trends that are shaping today's chain-restaurant landscape.
1. Cuisine gets a conscience. Consumers are increasingly interested in finding options that are healthy -- not just for themselves but for the environment. Sixty-eight percent of consumers polled by the National Restaurant Association as part of its 2016 Industry Forecast said they're more likely to go to a restaurant that offers locally sourced food, and 60 percent said they prefer those that engage in environmentally conscious practices, such as water conservation and recycling. Despite the costs, some casual dining chains are starting to answer the call.
2. The table becomes to-go. Full-service eateries are facing increased competition from chains that offer only limited service, such as Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill, a category not covered in the survey. Adding tech to the trend, many full-service chains are making it easier for takeout customers by accepting online and mobile orders and allowing them to pay electronically in advance; some also provide local home delivery and curbside pickup. With Outback Steakhouse, for instance, you place an online order, down to the smallest details, such as whether you want to skip the butter or add extra cheese, set a pickup time and your meal is ready in as little as 20 minutes.
3. Curiosity turns culinary. Consumers are eager to try innovative fare that they can't replicate at home, says Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the National Restaurant Association. Consumer Reports' survey shows that consumers are giving a thumbs-up to unconventional chains -- for starters, HuHot Mongolian Grill, where guests can imaginatively mix and match protein sources with various types of noodles, rice, vegetables and sauces, and The Melting Pot, which specializes in fondue.
4. Waits start to shrink. Consumer Reports found that some casual chains such as Texas Roadhouse are now encouraging call-ahead seating, which gets your name on the wait list before you've even left home rather than after you arrive. Carrabba's Italian Grill and Outback Steakhouse introduced a new twist called Click-Thru Seating that allows you to monitor real-time seating availability at your local restaurant by computer or smartphone and put your name on the wait list for now or later.
As for waiting for your food, that, too, may change because several chains have started employing technology to speed up service. Tables at Chili's are equipped with tablet computers that let guests peruse menu items and specials, as well as order whenever the craving strikes and pay when they choose.
To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org
A cure for the rising price of health insurance
Whether you get your health insurance through your employer, Medicare or one of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges, there's a good chance you're paying more than you need to. According to a study last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, 63 percent of the 50,000 employees at a Fortune 100 company selected a health plan that was not the most cost-effective option.
Picking an insurance plan is downright confusing. So Consumer Reports looked at some common mistakes people make when choosing insurance plans.
-- The big mistake: Automatically re-enrolling in the same plan year after year. Given people's distaste for researching health-insurance plans, it's not surprising that a 2015 study commissioned by the insurance company Aflac found that nine out of 10 workers stick with the same benefits year after year. Other research shows that only 13 percent of Medicare users switch drug plans each year, despite the fact that they could save money by doing so.
The remedy: Review all the offerings each year; plan benefits change frequently. Participating doctors are added and deleted, and drug formularies -- the lists of prescription medications a plan covers -- are revised. Other plan benefits, reimbursement rates and premiums may also change from year to year. Insurance companies provide much of this information online, but Consumer Reports says that talking with an informed source can be more efficient than sifting through all that information on your own.
-- The big mistake: Miscalculating -- or having no idea -- how much you spend on health care. You can't choose the most cost-effective coverage without knowing how much you're likely to spend on health care in the coming year. But few people take the time to calculate their medical spending, or even know how to do it.
The remedy: No one has a crystal ball to see into the future, but the amount you and other family members spent on health care this year is a good indicator of about how much you'll spend next year, says Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at DirectPath, a benefit and compliance management firm. After you've determined how much you paid last year, "think about what could be different next year," Buckey says.
-- The big mistake: Picking the plan with the lowest premiums. "If you shop by premiums alone, you could spend a lot more in out-of-pocket costs than if you had gone with a higher-premium plan," says Kev Coleman, head of research and data at HealthPocket, a technology company that compares and ranks health insurance plans.
The remedy: In addition to premiums, consider the amount of the deductible -- how much you have to spend before the insurance company begins covering expenses. Deductibles can range from about $500 to $5,000 or more, but among low-premium plans, the average today is closer to the high end of that range. Consumer Reports recommends also looking at co-pays (the flat charge you pay every time you go to a doctor, hospital or other health care provider) and co-insurance (the percentage of the bill that you have to pay for treatments).
To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org