QUINCY -- National statistics indicate that Americans are spending more on restaurant food than dining at home.
U.S. Census Bureau reports indicate that restaurant sales surpassed grocery store purchases near the end of 2015. But some industry officials say restaurant sales did not overtake grocery receipts until a few months ago because earlier reports did not consider grocery sales at Wal-Mart, Target, Costco and other general merchandise stores.
Niemann Foods Inc., which operates more than 100 grocery stores, also has positioned itself to meet the demands of its customers -- for groceries or hot meals.
"We know a lot of people are opting for the quick meal," said Nathaniel Jones, director of consumer engagement for the 100-year-old company.
At some sites the deli counters have been transformed in recent years to offer fried chicken, different flavors of wings and the "take-and-bake pizzas."
At Haymakers in West Quincy, Mo., the company offers hot chicken, potato wedges and similar items. Refrigerated containers also contain a variety of cheeses and meat sticks, as well as cold sandwiches.
"Snacks are a huge thing too, it's not just the three meals, but the snacks in ?between," Jones said.
Harrison Hy-Vee Store Director Tad Gallagher said the sales race was watched closely within the industry.
"It's a trend our company has paid attention to. We're going to more prepared items. People want it hot and ready to eat," Gallagher said.
Hy-Vee has positioned itself to benefit no matter how people want their food. Local stores have restaurants and hot food sales as well as traditional groceries.
There is a generational aspect to the restaurant surge. Millennials, born between 1982 and 2004, are more likely to see dining out as a priority. The baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, still trends toward dining at home. Millennials also have overtaken baby boomers as the largest living generational cohort.
The National Restaurant Association website reported that "66 percent of Millennials say spending money on an experience, like dining at a restaurant or some other activity, is more important to them than purchasing an item from a store."
Danny McManus, 31, who was coming out of Chicks on the River last week, said he wasn't surprised to hear that restaurant receipts are higher that grocery store sales.
"I'm a youth minister and I have lots of lunch meetings so I do kind of spend more money at restaurants than at home," McManus said.
He also sees a social aspect to dining out among teens and young adults, but said that's not universal.
"It depends on who you're with. There's a group of students who definitely do use it that way and there's also a group who eat at home because Mom cooks" and free food is a big draw, McManus said.
Kent Kite, 52, also got food at Chicks on the River that day, but estimated that he's still much more likely to eat at home.
"I'd say it's maybe 70 percent eating at home and 30 percent eating out," Kite said. "It's more that I just grab something quick to eat and get home because I'm working late or something like that."
Kite also believes that as families grow, the cost at restaurants becomes an obstacle.
"If all four of us are going out, it's a lot higher than when it's just a couple," Kite said.
Surveys indicated that Millennials often want to look at menus online, and they are more open to ordering through electronic kiosks or tablets. They may be more focused on healthful food than previous generations, appreciate locally grown produce or meat and may want more special items, such as vegetarian or gluten-free foods.
The trend toward restaurant purchases has gone on for decades. Industry receipts show that in 1970, Americans spent about 26 percent of their food dollars on items prepared outside the home. That rose to 43 percent in 2012 and hit 50 percent in 2015 -- or earlier this year, depending on whose statistics are used.
But that does not mean restaurants have things easy.
Kelly's Manager Rod McClean is not sure the restaurant business is surging.
"Nationwide the head count is down. Ours is down a little bit. I don't know about cash receipts. Those may be up as prices go up," McClean said.
He has read stories in trade magazines that indicate more people are ordering deliveries or meals to be picked up
"I know some people think the restaurant business is better than ever. No really, not in Quincy as far as we're concerned," McClean said.
Quincy Holiday Inn and Tony's Too Manager Mark Aleman thinks head count and receipts are probably up. However, he adds that there are more restaurants than ever before in Quincy, and that means business at any one location may not be up.
"We've got a lot more restaurants than we had overall 25 years ago," Aleman said. "It gets more competitive as the number of seats go up."
Aleman said in the last few months Quincy has seen Dunnbelly, IHOP, Skrambowls, Tacos Ink and a new Panera Bread open.
He describes a cycle in food service industries where businesses open, the number of customer seats go up and then some restaurants close. About six months after competitors leave, he expects another wave of openings to begin.
The industry responds to public demand, Aleman said. He sees several places now offering breakfast sandwiches. There was not as much demand for that a decade or two ago. Now there are enough customers looking for breakfast to sustain several businesses in that niche.
Aleman was a longtime president of the now-defunct Great River Restaurant Association. He got involved in the group in 1991 and kept a list of the eateries that opened and closed for about 15 years.
"I kept track until the number got to 250 and then just stopped," Aleman said. "People don't realize how many restaurants have come and gone in this town until you show them. There are some sites in Quincy that have had three or four different businesses just in the last 15 years or so."
Aleman said grocery stores have one advantage over restaurants: Most people seem to have a certain loyalty to their grocery store. That does not always happen with dining establishments.
"Restaurant (preferences) change by seasons and what's available. Grocery shoppers are a little more loyal to one store, even if they go to others for an occasional item," Aleman said.