NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Despite American society's continuing obsession with health and healthful eating, fast food remains its closeted paramour, according to "Fast Food Nation 2008: A Consumer Perspective on the Fast Food Industry," a study by the Chicago-based Research Inter-national USA.
The findings, based on a panel of 1,000 people between the ages of 16-65 who responded to an online survey, reveal that fast food remains quite popular and consumers have a positive attitude toward the industry, especially during recessionary times.
The most remarkable finding for Research International VP-Client Services Alexander Kleijngeld was "the importance of high-frequency consumers for the industry."
MEALS OF INDUSTRY
The average American spends $500 a year on fast food, making the industry a major part of the economy.
CAN'T STAY AWAY
Half the population eats fast food once a week, with 20% eating it every other day. Some 14% of the population accounts for almost half of all fast-food sales.
Contrary to perceptions that fast food is the poor man's choice, frequent users are typically male, below middle age and employed, with high incomes averaging $67,575 -- 15% higher than the sample group's average household income of $58,875.
Restaurants that offer new menu options or promotions, but also make efforts to improve the healthfulness of their menu, are attractive to these frequent users, who are more likely to increase consumption because of career pressures or appealing "value" dining options.
Less than a third of fast-food patrons dine in. Repeat business and brand loyalty are thus highly dependent on positive drive-through experiences. Convenience remains the catchword to understand consumer choices between outlets.
Breakfast patrons continue to elude the industry, despite heavy investments: Four out of five fast-food visits are for lunch and dinner.
ON THE RUN
"While the stereotype of a typical fast-food customer may be that of a couch potato, our research found ... high-frequency fast-food users are more involved and more active than the average consumer," said Mr. Kleijngeld.
Chipotle and Panera Bread had the highest spend per occasion. Mr. Kleijngeld believes the fact that their customers dine in more often may create a "captive-audience" effect.