Selling the “‘Eat Out’ Idea” in the 1950s

This photograph of a family at Lee’s Restaurant, Lincoln, in 1952 is from the MacDonald Studio Collection. NSHS RG2183-1952-318-5


American consumers today spend less of their disposable income on food than those in past decades, but statistics indicate that many of these dollars are spent for foods consumed away from home. Active marketing campaigns on behalf of the burgeoning restaurant industry helped bring about this change in eating habits.

Nebraska was not immune to the trend. “Big Budget to Sell ‘Eat Out’ Idea,” reported the Lincoln Star on November 1, 1955. “A $10 million advertising expenditure to entice the public to eat out more often was explained Monday evening at the State Restaurant convention in Lincoln by Marion W. Isbell, president of the National Restaurant Association.”

From Kearney Daily Hub, May 12, 1952

Speaking at the annual banquet, Isbell told the group that $2 million in advertising had already been pledged. He pointed out that the restaurant industry outlook was “optimistic, with an annual sales now of over $16 billion; by 1973, he said, that is expected to increase to $35 billion.”

A talk on “the use of ‘gimmicks’ as necessary in successful restaurant operations” was also delivered to the convention delegates. One of the most successful gimmicks was said to be the drive-in restaurant. Others included personalized books of matches for customers, cakes for special occasions, and special equipment and menus for children.

Although the popularity of eating out increased as the 1950s became the 1960s, it was sometimes hindered by another innovation in American life, television. Some preferred to eat at home while watching a favorite TV program, giving rise to the “TV Dinner,” first mass produced and marketed by Omaha-based C. A. Swanson and Sons.

More information on Nebraska in the 1950s is available in an online article from Nebraska History magazine, a benefit of History Nebraska membership. Both full members and subscription-only members receive four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the History Nebraska website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications


(Updated 7/14/2023)

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