Surging restaurant prices make dining out a luxury

Elisabeth Buchwald, CNN | 2/13/2024, 3:40 p.m.
If you’ve opted to cook a romantic meal at home with your partner this Valentine’s Day — no matter how …
Food price increases used to be smaller at restaurants compared to grocery stores. Mandatory Credit: Marie Le Ble/ZUMA Wire/

If you’ve opted to cook a romantic meal at home with your partner this Valentine’s Day — no matter how it comes out — know that you’re saving a decent amount of money compared to couples dining out.

Even excluding pricey Valentine’s Day menus, it’s becoming increasingly cheaper for Americans to eat at home instead of dining out, according to January Consumer Price Index data. That’s because prices for groceries are up 1.2% year over year, while the price of food consumed at restaurants is up 5.1%.

It’s another reminder of the sting inflation is having on Americans’ daily lives. Even though price increases are slowing, prices remain much higher than they were before the pandemic, which has led people to have a miserable feeling about an otherwise strong economy.

And in this election year, higher food prices, which rose last month to their highest monthly rate in a year, could present problems for President Joe Biden’s campaign.

While the pace of inflation for groceries and restaurant food has significantly slowed from last year, the wedge between the respective pace of their price increases has grown.

In January 2023, it was cheaper to dine out, with food prices up 8.2% compared to the prior year. Grocery prices were up 11.3% year over year.

What’s behind the shift?

In the post-pandemic world, consumers have been devoting more of their budgets to services compared to goods. Demand for services has been putting upward pressure on wages, which, in turn, has contributed to price increases.

“The wage pressures are there,” said Dana Peterson, chief economist at the Conference Board, in an interview. The biggest payroll gains are in sectors such as health care, government and leisure and hospitality, she noted. “Leisure and hospitality includes restaurants, and so there’s still a lot of churn, and those companies are having to raise wages to attract and retain labor.”

“We believe many of these increases reflect the lagged effect of strong wage growth in 2023, and we believe wage growth is now slowing,” Goldman Sachs economists said in a note on Tuesday.

As a whole, prices for services — which include dining out, transportation and entertainment — were up 0.7% in January compared to the prior month. That accounted for 148% of the overall 0.3% monthly increase in prices.

What kinds of food got more expensive

Fresh vegetables are starting to come at a premium.

Prices for that food category increased by 2.4% last month. The most notable increase was tomatoes, which cost 4.6% more in January compared to December.

Behind that increase are two related factors, said Timothy Richards, chair of Arizona State University’s School of Agribusiness.

Tomato prices were much lower in 2022, making increases in subsequent months appear much higher. Because farmers weren’t able to sell tomatoes for as much, they started allocating more of their space for higher-profit yielding kind of produce, Richards said.

“With high prices, wait a few months and the problem will fix itself,” he told CNN.

Across all goods and categories that CPI tracks, frozen noncarbonated juices and drinks prices saw the biggest over the past month and year. On a monthly basis, prices are up 9.9% and for the 12 months that ended in January, they’re up 29%. You can probably blame the weather — hurricanes in particular — for that as well as a devastating citrus disease.

What got cheaper

On the flip side, ham and shelf-stable fish and seafood saw the biggest price drops across all food categories tracked in the CPI.

Ham prices were down 3.1% last month and shelf-stable fish and seafood prices were down 2.9%.

But on an annual basis, eggs continued to be the winner of the largest price drops (-28.6%) across everything tracked in the CPI. That may not be the case for much longer given egg prices were up 3.4% last month from December as bird flu once again is striking the industry.

Lettuce (-11.7%) and apples (-8.9%) took second and third place for the biggest annual food price drops.