We’re Spending Less. Why Are We Still Buying Fancy Beer and Cheese?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 25 2011 1:12 PM

We’re Spending Less. Why Are We Still Buying Fancy Beer and Cheese?

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Craft beers on sale at Sam's Wines and Spirits in Chicago.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Though the recession officially ended in 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Americans continue to spend less and save more. And yet a quick scan of your local supermarket aisles will reveal that sales of Greek yogurt, craft beer, and artisanal cheese are thriving. Why is our appetite for these specialty products growing even as our budgets decrease?

Because we’re cutting out even more expensive luxuries. As Americans eat out less, we’re willing to spend more for variety, convenience—maybe even health. The seemingly endless flavors, textures, and shapes of Greek yogurt, artisanal cheese, and craft beer make us feel like we’re choosing from a new menu each time we go to the store—while we spend less time choosing from actual menus.

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“There’s never going to be a recession in eating. Just winners and losers,” says Harry Balzer, Vice President of the NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm. Unsurprisingly, the biggest loser has been the sit-down restaurant. Restaurants are relatively expensive: We eat out for a quarter of our meals and spend nearly half of our food dollars in the process, according to NPD. The winners are not just the cheapest products, but those that give us new experiences—while also saving us time. “Americans are always looking for new versions of food they already like,” explained Balzer. “But that’s not enough in a recession, so we see people asking, ‘Does it make my life easier?’”

Industry insiders agree that consumers see additional value in these gourmet products. “The growth in artisanal cheese is not simply the product of a lot of wealthy people who don’t know how to spend their money,” said Paul Kindstedt, author of American Farmstead Cheese. “People are looking for better food, and a healthier, more natural connection with the local food system.”

Greek yogurt also satisfies the health and convenience nexus. “Yogurt can replace everything you did at breakfast—and even at lunch,” Harry Balzer noted. Its many varieties also give people a customized, novel experience: Chobani Champions for kids, Fage Total for dieters, drinkable Oikos for those eating while driving. Cheese and craft beer are similarly flexible. Knock back a bottle with a grilled cheese sandwich—or serve a limited-edition, barrel-aged brew in a snifter with a tray of cave-aged Gruyère.

Craft beer, artisanal cheese, and Greek yogurt can all be dressed up or dressed down. You might think of them as the culinary versions of another recession-proof item: the little black dress.

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