I walk through the restaurant doors and before I even have a chance to say “party of one,” I already feel self-conscious. I try not to make eye contact with patrons as the hostess leads me to my table, and I am certain that everyone is staring at me, wondering why I’m publicly eating alone. But after I’ve desperately refreshed my Facebook and Instagram feed 800 times and I get the courage to look up from my security blanket (aka iPhone), I realize that around the restaurant, it’s business as usual. No one is looking at me with sad eyes, the server doesn’t miss a beat when taking my order and overall, I find that I’m able to enjoy the food more than if I were busy conversing with someone across the table.
As consumers we’ve all been there, feeling like the only person on the planet that could possibly be eating alone at that very moment. Movie scenes come to mind such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” when Jason Segal’s character is asked several times if he really is dining alone, or in “The Lonely Guy” when Steve Martin’s character declares he will be dining alone and the entire restaurant screeches to a halt. But in this day in age, it is common for single diners to breeze confidently through restaurant doors several times a day.
Market research firm The NPD Group found that 57 percent of food and beverage consumption occurs when people are alone, with the highest being at breakfast and snack time, followed by lunch and then dinner. The main factor contributing to the increase in solo dining is that the number of households that consist of one person is at an all-time high, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They report that 27 percent of households contain a “party of one” because of the Millennial generation getting married later, and also widowers of the Baby Boomer generation.
For product manufacturers, catering to the solo diner has been a no-brainer considering that historically most singles would prefer to dine inside their home than “shamefully” eat alone in public. Freezer aisles at the local market abound with single-serve side dishes, frozen pizzas and even slices of pie. But as health awareness continues to emerge and the foodie movement evolves, consumers don’t want to miss the experience that comes with dining out.
So how can restaurants ensure the solo diner is getting the best experience possible, free of self-consciousness? One restaurant in Amsterdam is going to the extreme. EENMAAL is the first one-person restaurant in the world and an attractive place for temporary disconnection, according to their website. The restaurant boasts only tables for one, does not provide Wi-Fi but does offer physical magazines and books for diners to browse. Founder and director Marina van Goor of M V G/Creative Agency, the mastermind behind the EENMAAL concept, shares on the restaurant website that “Solitary dining can be an inspiring experience in our hyper connected world just because you can disconnect for awhile.” The restaurant has found success in offering a place where it’s not “weird” to dine alone and disconnection from the outside world
In addition to providing an escape from the noise, dining alone brings a welcome awareness to the aromas and flavors on the tongue, with the entire meal focused on what is being consumed rather than the dinner conversation. In fact, Ottawa restaurateur Stephen Beckta tells BBC.com that fine dining establishments should see a solo diner as the greatest compliment a restaurant can receive. Consumers are coming to the restaurant with or without a companion to discover the food and culture they’ve heard buzz about.
Sean Pera, pastry chef, PreGel AMERICA, was formerly pastry chef de partie at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, NC, a Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond property. He shares an insider perspective on how restaurants view the single crowd. “We always paid a little more attention to solo diners,” Pera says. “We found it very special to share our cuisine in an intimate way with them. We would always try to provide them with extra courses or special mignardises at the end of the meal just to make the experience a little more enjoyable.”
Restaurants are seeing the solo diner as the next generation of patrons, so giving them VIP treatment is becoming part of a server’s responsibilities. At San Diego restaurant Top of the Market, solo diners are often seated in the kitchen so they are able to take in cooking demos, free tastings and conversations with the chefs.
The main place a transformation for single diners is occurring is the restaurant bars. Not only can diners watch TV while eating, they can also comfortably interact with bartenders and other patrons. According to CNBC.com, TGI Fridays bartenders are trained to read the signs from customers, determining if they want to chat throughout their stay or if they would prefer to be left alone. Solo diners also feel more comfortable dining in an intimate space, so in addition to bar seating, smaller tables for two or even one can attract solo traffic.
John Gordon, principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group, told CNBC.com in a phone interview that “On the menu development side, it is a trend toward faster. Single diners aren’t going to generally spend two hours. The turnover will be faster. Because the turnover is faster, the actual entrée or food itself is either smaller, lower priced or more individualized.” Tapas and bite-sized eats come to mind as a way to cater to singles, as well as happy hour menus boasting smaller portions of regular menu items at an affordable price.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that singles in the U.S. spend $1.9 trillion per year. And with a poll on CNBC.com showing that only 16 percent of survey participants are embarrassed to eat alone, the solo demographic is one to be considered. The truth is the singles market doesn’t want FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Restaurants should ensure that parties of one know there’s a place for them too.