Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner

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This fall The New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl will at last show her face to the world. Her anonymity will no longer be an issue in her new position as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, the 60-year-old bible of the cooking industry. "I think of what we're doing as throwing open the windows," says Reichl of her editorial goals. "The magazine's been standing still for a long time. It's such an icon that the people who were running it were frightened of changing it." Reichl has no such fears. And one of her primary goals is to bring in younger readers.

Until now, the graying of the readers of epicurean magazines like Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and Food & Wine has actually made them more attractive to the upscale advertisers that dominate the category. As readers' ages have increased, so too have their incomes. In 1988, the median age of an epicurean reader was 39, and the median household income was $45,000, according to Magazine Dimensions '99, published by New York City-based Media Dynamics. By last year, the median age had increased by 11 percent to 43, but the median household income had increased by a whopping 40 percent to $63,000. These magazines also attract a large percentage of affluent readers-those with annual household incomes of $70,000 or more. That's why Cuisinart, for example, has advertised in Gourmet since the birth of the company's food processor 27 years ago. "We're looking for a specific consumer," says Mary Rodgers, marketing communications manager for Cuisinart. And that consumer, she adds, has an annual household income well over $75,000, is likely to be a woman, is highly educated, has a family, and is a cooking and entertaining enthusiast, as well as a home renovator.

Sounds like a Gourmet reader. According to a 1998 Monroe Mendelsohn study of the magazine, 41 percent of readers have household incomes greater than $75,000, 27 percent between $100,000 and $199,000, and 16 percent $200,000 or more. Seventy-eight percent are women, 32 percent graduated college, 36 percent have studied on the post-graduate level, 86 percent are married, and the median net worth of their households is $830,100. And each month, affluent adults such as these account for more than 27 million occasions of home entertaining.

What's not to like? Indeed, the epicurean magazine category overall has seen a 25 percent increase in ad pages since 1995. But if these magazines continue to follow readers as they age, will they back themselves into a corner? "When readers get to be past 50, you start losing them as they convert to other issues like health or retirement. The magazines will eventually lose out if they don't start attracting younger readers," says Ed Papazian, president of Media Dynamics. In fact, the circulations of the leaders in the category, Gourmet and Bon Appetit, both of which are Conde Nast titles, have been declining for the past five years. In 1994 Gourmet's circulation was 916,800; by 1998, it had shrunk 3 percent to 885,600. And in 1994, Bon Appetit's circulation was 1.2 million; by 1998, it had shrunk 16 percent to 1 million. Food & Wine, ranked third in circulation of epicurean magazines, has actually increased its circulation 16 percent during this time, from 754,700 in 1994 to 878,100 in 1998. Industry observers say this is due in large part to the aggressive promotional activities of its owner, American Express.

While advertisers and media buyers say they are happy with Gourmet's performance in general, they do hope Reichl will revamp its image. Roberta Garfinkle, print media buyer for McCann Erickson, says, "With any magazine you have to stop and ask if you're giving the readers what they want. Changing editors is a sign that maybe they're not. Gourmet is getting a little old and a little stodgy." And Rodgers of Cuisinart also believes the magazine could use some tweaking. "I'm hoping that they'll update it and make it a little more contemporary as far as visual layout and covers."

While Reichl says she can't edit "by the numbers," she believes the changes she plans to make will bring in younger readers. Getting name writers who are not necessarily known for writing on food will certainly make the book sexier and create some buzz. In the September issue-her first as editor-a "blockbuster novelist" will take his honeymoon on the magazine's tab and report back. Reichl will also be bringing more faces to the book's pages. "I look at these tables in Gourmet-tables covered with plates and beautiful things in beautiful rooms, but I want to know who the people are." And along with the faces, Reichl wants to know their stories. "Last year we did an article about Paul Bertolli, who's a great chef in Oakland. You saw a picture of him and his wife. But you never found out anything about him. It was just his recipes. I hate that! Tell me who he is!"

While updating the look of the magazine and courting younger readers will please some advertisers, others don't care if the Gourmet reader ages: "From an automotive standpoint, the age is good," says David Rooney, director of advertising media operations for Daimler-Chrysler, one of the top 20 advertisers in the epicurean category, according to Competitive Media Reporting. "It's targeted right at our demographic for a lot of cars. It's the heart of the baby boom. The median age will grow in a lot of categories just because they're aging."

But do trends among the general population bode well for the future success of Gourmet and its competition? Neither of the two mainstay epicurean activities-dining out and cooking at home-is faring particularly well, according to Consumer Expenditure Survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 1987 and 1997, spending for food at home by all Americans dropped by 3 percent, and spending for food away from home dropped 13 percent (based on figures adjusted for 1997 dollars). And 35-to-44-year-olds, the core readers of epicurean magazines, are outpacing all other groups in their miserliness: They've cut the totals of their restaurant tabs by 23 percent.

So more 35-to-44-year-olds are donning their aprons, right? Wrong. Busy schedules make it more difficult for people at all ages to cook gourmet meals.

Between 1985 and 1995, the number of hours women spent cooking per week dropped 23 percent, and the number of hours men cooked dropped by 21 percent, according to the Americans' Use of Time Project, directed by John Robinson at the University of Maryland. "There's a growing trend in this country that suggests that time spent in the kitchen will only be for special occasions," says Ellen Oppenheim, a print media planner at Foote, Cone & Belding. "Most people enjoy eating, but they have to weigh the time it takes to prepare the food."

And increasingly the scales are tipping toward "home meal replacements"-take-out from restaurants, grocery stores, and supermarkets. According to the National Restaurant Association, consumers are eating take-out dinners 61 percent more often now than they did in 1987, and they are eating in restaurants 4 percent less. "Twenty years ago the traditional home replacement meal was a bucket of chicken or a TV dinner," says Tom Miner, a principal of Technomics, a food industry research group in Chicago. But, he says, since the culinary explosion of the late '80s, upscale take-outhas proliferated. He mentions a host of gourmet outlets that have sprung up since then, including Mangia, The Vinegar Factory, Fairway, Citarella, Sutton Place Gourmet, Eatzi's, and Take-Me! Marche.

"Every year supermarket sales grow at 1 percent," says Miner. "And the food service business grows at 3 percent. But within that category, prepared meals for take-out are growing between 5 and 6 percent." Miner believes the wealthy are driving the trend because they spend the greatest amount for food away from home.

But while all this may be true, Reichl suggests that people might not be reading Gourmet as a how-to book. "What's happened to epicurean magazines is like what happened to cookbooks," says Reichl. "People are buying cookbooks at a record rate, and they're not cooking. But they read them. It's almost like pornography-people go to bed with cookbooks and with magazines."

Besides, some analysts believe a little more quality time is creeping back into our lives. Richard Hokenson, an analyst at Donaldsen, Lufkin & Jenrette, says that as women's entrance into the workforce slows after decades of steady growth, the food industry will feel the effects. He doesn't predict a return to the '40s and '50s when a home-cooked meal on the table each night was a given, but rather, a slight shift back in that direction.

The timing may be right, then, for Reichl's Gourmet. Asked if the trademark script of the Gourmet logo would remain, Reichl responds, "Oh absolutely, I love it! It's very '40s-but it's so retro that it's hip. I think we've got to try a little more for that look."

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