The run-up in gas prices this year had many marketers, including restaurant operators, worried. A survey by AlixPartners, taken earlier this year, revealed that 28% of consumers said fuel costs were contributing to their concerns about the economy. Now that prices have fallen back a bit, consumers may return to more of a typical summertime pattern for eating out.

The latest survey data from AlixPartners finds that 70% of consumers are eating out once a week this year. That’s an increase from 49% of consumers who said the same thing last year. But restaurant operators are facing cost pressures because of more expensive ingredients. And consumers are looking for deals. Both of these factors are  pressuring revenue.

The average spending per meal has dropped over the past year, from $14.10 to $13.40. In addition, consumers are patronizing less expensive dining establishments. For example, dining traffic has surged over 60% at the convenience store format and 25% at fast casual outlets.

Restaurants are trying a number of strategies to get consumers to step through the front door. As reflected in other studies published this year, daily deals are popular. Over 13% of consumers in the AlixPartners survey indicated these discounts influence where they choose to eat.  Adam Werner, managing director at AlixPartners and head of the firm’s Restaurant & Foodservice Practice in North America says “discounting is absolutely here to stay. Customers continue to look for a deal, and continue to expect to find coupons, even at fine-dining establishments.”

Healthy menu items also influence where consumers decide to eat. Nearly half, 49%, say it is “extremely” or “somewhat important” to see healthy items on the menu. However, when consumers actually place their orders, they are less like to want the healthy options.

Restaurant operators are likely cheered by findings like this but they should also realize that they’ll need to keep marketing creatively and promoting lower cost items to interest consumers.

[Source: Restaurant Industry Rebound Gaining Momentum. AlixPartners. 29 Jun. 2011. Web. 12 Jul. 2011]