Editor's Note: Jon D. Markman writes a weekly column for CNBC on MSN Money that is republished here on TheStreet.com. In a couple of weeks, most Americans will sort through recipes, lay siege to the supermarket, fire up their ovens and prepare to enjoy one of the most gloriously nonsecular, apolitical, communal events on the calendar. That would be Thanksgiving, not the Super Bowl. What's amazing about this nationwide retreat to the kitchen is just how unusual it is for today's busy families. Three-fifths of Americans eat out every day, and for a remarkable number of families, a local restaurant is the place where they take most meals. In fact, many new homes are built these days without any dining room at all, as buyers rank it near the bottom of spaces they consider important in a dwelling. In about a generation's time, restaurants have become accepted as the third place of American life, after home and office, whether it's Starbucks ( SBUX) for breakfast or Applebee's ( APPB) for dinner. By the end of this year, industry surveys show that there will be 215,000 full-service restaurants in America and another 250,000 fast-food joints that will collectively generate a stunning $560 billion in sales.
Feeding an Obsession
With so much money pouring into the industry from overworked moms and dads, competition is escalating. Yet it's a tough business in which to make money. Not only is every street strewn with rivals, but raw-material and labor costs are beyond your control, marketing expenses are high and government health regulators are relentless and capricious.