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Opinion
Justin Fox

The Reason You’re Still Waiting to Order a Meal

Restaurants are doing more business than before the pandemic with fewer employees. That’s economic progress of a sort.

The restaurant sector’s rebirth involved lots of innovation and experimentation.

The restaurant sector’s rebirth involved lots of innovation and experimentation.

Photographer: Amir Hamja/Bloomberg

Even after adjusting for whopping restaurant price increases, consumer spending on what government statisticians call food services and drinking places is up more than 7% from what it was before the pandemic. Meanwhile, employment at food services and drinking places is down more than 4%. That can be irritating for diners. It’s also economic progress.

For most of the 2010s, restaurants were a troubling sort of economic engine for the US. Spending on food away from home surpassed spending on food at home for the first time in either 2007 or 2014, depending on which US Department of Agriculture data series you use, with the gap growing to $234 billion (11.6% of total food spending) in 2019. Food services accounted for about 15% of US job growth from 2010 through 2017, nearly double the sector’s share of existing jobs, but the pay was low and productivity gains were almost nonexistent. The sector’s value added, or contribution to US gross domestic product, grew only slightly from 1.9% of GDP in 2010 to 2.3% in 2019. A dining boom is fun (“it’s hard to think of any sphere of American life where the selection and quality have improved so much as food,” my fellow Bloomberg Opinion columnist Tyler Cowen wrote in 2017) but it’s not exactly something you can build a prosperous economy around.