What Scott Hildula considers a nice restaurant is one where his kids can draw on the paper-covered tables. For Dan Leinweber, it's a glass of wine and quiet. Karen Wright craves comfort and a healthier menu.
''We all work very hard. And, when we go out to eat it is a treat, and so we expect to get service and good quality food,'' said Leinweber, 53, of suburban Boston, who often chooses upscale, independent dining establishments. ''We would rather spend a few more dollars, and get good quality food.''
Leinweber, Hildula and Wright are baby boomers who have graduated to their peak earnings years and have the dining habits to prove it. For the most part, they don't worry about the size of the tab -- so long as they get what they want.
''They have more disposable income to spend. ... They are at the stage in their lives when they feel they deserve higher quality,'' said Bob Sandelman, president of Sandelman & Associates, a food-service marketing and research firm in Orange County, Calif.
Sandelman said baby boomers are responsible for much of the growth of the casual dining restaurant segment, in which national chains including TGI Friday's, Chili's and Applebee's attract families as well as adults without children. There are crayons and paper tablecloths or place mats but also wine lists and appealing decor.
Sales at casual dining restaurants, where entrees run about $10 to $15, rose 10 percent last year, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food service research firm.
Casual dining spots ''are relaxed, social places. The bar is a draw for a number. There's selection. You can get healthier items if you want, and these places are family friendly,'' said Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic.
Boomers have also contributed to the growth of restaurants that combine casual dining and fast food, Goldin said. Sales at these restaurants, which mostly include sandwich shops like Subway and Panera Bread, rose 15 percent last year, Technomic said. Meanwhile, sales of fast food grew at most in the low single digits.
At quick-casual restaurants, ''there's emphasis on better service and slightly more upscale ingredients and more comfortable surroundings, said Lea Davis, editor of QSR (short for quick-service restaurant) magazine.
Davis said of boomers, ''They eat out a lot. ...They expect a lot. They expect it all.''
Wright, 38, of Mankato, Minn., is part of the casual dining set. With a busy schedule of work, Bible study, nighttime college classes and planning her June wedding, Wright eats out as many as 10 times a week. She often goes to Subway for lunch. For dinner, she chooses restaurants she finds comfortable, frequently Perkins or TGI Friday's.
As a vegetarian, Wright also picks restaurants she knows will answer her questions about how food is prepared and make appropriate substitutions.
''I'm picky about my food and how it is cooked,'' Wright said. ''I know if I go to Friday's it will be cooked like this.''
The restaurant industry recognizes that the nation's 76 million boomers are a generation that spends money more freely than their parents, and that it's profitable to cater to their demands. Boomer households on average spend about $2,600 a year eating out, compared with an average of $2,100 for all households, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Hildula, 39, of San Francisco, said his family prefers casual sit-down restaurants, places where servers tie balloons to his children's chairs while he and his wife sip margaritas.
Hildula looks for ''a venue that has some adult element like a glass of wine, or beer, or mixed drink, and enough distraction that a squealing child won't disrupt the rest of the diners.''
Leinweber, whose kids are grown, prefers a calmer dining experience. ''We go out to get away from the noise, to get away from the crowds and to get a good meal,'' he said.
Leinweber and his wife often choose upscale restaurants, a favorite being Blue Ginger, whose chef, Ming Tsai, has a show on the Food Network.
But quality doesn't always mean fancy digs or cloth napkins, Leinweber said. He also enjoys take-out from the local deli while in younger years he might have grabbed burgers from a drive-thru window.
There's evidence on all levels -- even at fast-food outlets -- of boomers' influence and their desire for better, sometimes healthier food. Consider that in March Burger King rolled out the BK Veggie, a burger made of vegetables and grains.
Meanwhile, Wendy's has improved its salad line with Garden Sensations. And, for what Arby's calls grown-up tastes, there is its Market Fresh sandwich line with a broader choice of bread, meats and condiments.
''This is a group of people that grew up on fast food. They are not going to say, 'I am too old for that,''' Sandelman said.
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