Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Extinction of the Early Bird

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Fascinating article that examines the interplay of the restaurant business and changing demographics. Jaya Saxena writes in Eater:

The east coast of South Florida feels like purgatory. There’s Miami, and there are beaches, but drive for 20 minutes outside of either, and it’s just vast plains of boxy, beige retirement villages, distinguishable only by their names, which all sound like euphemisms for a place you go when you die — Valencia Isles, Windward Palms, Mangrove Bay — and the relative elaborateness of their welcome fountains. The sky is a flat blue, and the temperature ranges from a chilled 62 degrees indoors to a muggy 85 degrees outside. Entire strip malls have been colonized by medical centers, generically advertising “Eye Care” or “Dermatology,” and every home purchase comes with a subscription to Nostalgic America magazine. “If Florida is the Great American Escape, it is also less enticing: the Great American Dumping Ground,” wrote Gloria Jahoda in Florida: A History in 1984. “It is where Mom and Pop go to die.”

My husband and I ventured into this limbo a couple of years ago to visit his grandparents, Seymour and Isabel Lubchansky. Their retirement community, Majestic Isles, in Boynton Beach — located about two hours north of Miami, it’s one of a cluster of towns that might sound as familiar to a Northeasterner with Jewish grandparents as a Florida lifer — was built in 1996, and it’s open to anyone 55 and up. The Lubchanskys’ covered patio, complete with a glass table and four scratchily upholstered chairs, looked out on manicured crabgrass and a man-made pond, where an occasional visit from a snowy egret or a roseate spoonbill would remind you that the Everglades were only 25 miles away. Majestic Isles has a clubhouse where you can play cards, a theater where retirees put on plays, and a shuffleboard court that is only used by visiting grandchildren, and only ironically.

Struck by a vision of faded tropical button-ups, card games, and steam trays full of baby carrots, we decided to go full-old person for the weekend: We’d play shuffleboard, take a slow walk around the block, find an early bird special, and be in bed by 7:30. I was especially charmed by the idea of living the early bird life. An emblem of South Florida’s retiree culture, the early bird is the dietary aspect of the lifestyle one expects to buy into down there — a slice of comforting, if boring, heaven — a time and place where doing the same thing every day is a sign that you’ve got it made. More than an affordable meal, it’s a fully packaged experience that brings elderly people together to gossip over poached sole and to complain about something being too salty before everyone returns to their identical homes in their identical developments.

The first stop on our early bird tour was Mamma Mia, an Italian restaurant in a strip mall whose large portions — perfect for cutting up and storing in the fridge for three days — made its special especially popular, according to Isabel. But at 4:30 p.m., there were no elderly in sight, just teens and young families ordering enormous platters of chicken Parmesan or personal pizzas to go. The hostess assured me that the early bird is always slow.

The next day, we ventured to Scully’s Restaurant, a place that seemed more in line with the “traditional” idea of the early bird — steaks and chops with a vegetable side. At 5 p.m., just three tables were occupied. “You know, I’m surprised with our early dinner menu, that we don’t get more customers,” owner Kevin Scully told me at his bar. “I’m surprised with what we offer before 5:30 that the place isn’t packed.” (This past October, Scully retired and closed the restaurant; in its place will be Driftwood, which is the kind of the place that has “hand-crafted” custom menu holders and $12 riffs on classic cocktails.)

A day later, we drove to a diner that multiple local guides said had the best deal in town, and warned to arrive early to fight for a seat. The parking lot was straight-up empty. Where were all of the old people? What of the need for an $8.99 chicken breast with a pair of watery, steamed-vegetable sides? What happened to the early bird special?

The short answer, I learned, is that the retirees who heralded the early bird are going away, and that their replacements, while burdened by the overall decline of the middle class, have different expectations about what retired life should look like — mostly, they do not want to be reminded in any way that they’re old now, especially if they can afford that luxury. Millennials might be killing chains, but boomers are driving the early bird to extinction.


The phrase “early bird” does come from the proverb about catching the worm, which dates to 1636, but the first appearance of “early bird special” isn’t until 1904, when it shows up in a department store ad hawking a deal on “men’s summer underwear” from 8 a.m. to noon. It pops up on menus sometime in the 1920s, according to Andrew P. Haley, an associate professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi, due to a combination of the democratization of restaurants and prohibition. “More people are dining out, the middle class is dining out on a regular basis, they have a broader audience,” Haley told me. “But you have a problem with Prohibition. It hurts the existing restaurant model of fine dining as being the end all of dining.” Without alcohol to offer, restaurants had to find ways to target new audiences, and a family deal at non-peak hours filled seats.

The economic disruptions in the 1930s and 1940s kept these deals popular, and by the 1950s, it was common enough to find an “early bird special” at restaurants of all stripes. In a 1952 ad for San Francisco’s Goman’s Gay 90’s, a vaudeville nightclub that was probably not a hotspot for bluehairs, the early bird was advertised as a “dinner that includes a cocktail, fried chicken, hot biscuits, honey, shoestring potatoes, coffee, and after dinner drink — all for a couple of bucks,” Haley said. “The early bird idea means you have to come before 7:30.”

Another Prohibition-era innovation to get people in the door was targeting specific demographics. In 1921, for instance, the Waldorf-Astoria introduced one of the first children’s menus to reel in families, since liquor was no longer available. Throughout the Depression and into the postwar era, diners became particularly adept at pinpointing groups of people, and eventually they zeroed in on the old. “Diners were very sophisticated in thinking about filling the restaurant through the entire day,” Haley said. “They still appealed to working-class men in the morning and at lunch, they just targeted families at dinner time. And they targeted the elderly as well as any segment that could fill in the afternoon hours.”

Social Security benefits, which arrived with the New Deal expansion of the welfare state, ushered in a new category of personhood — the retiree, who could live independently, if frugally. In the 1950s, lured by the sun and low state taxes, retirees began flocking to South Florida, which had been practically terraformed for them in the preceding decades by real estate developers who tamed the fetid swamps and snarls of trees into a paradise of wide roads, accessible beaches, and endless fields of tract housing. “I can live comfortably, have a whale of a good time, and save money on an income of about $40 per week,” one retiree wrote in a 1956 pamphlet, The Truth About Florida.

As restaurants in Florida adapted to the growing population of the elderly, demographic targeting intersected with the promise of comfort and the value of the early bird special. “In 1972 with inflation on the rise, Social Security benefits are indexed to the consumer index, and that results in an elderly population that is much better cared for in the U.S.,” Haley said. “So you have a richer elderly population that’s now worth investing some resources into. The early bird special, which had made sense because it kept restaurants full at times they were not necessarily full, kind of takes off then.”

As the 20th century progressed, the greatest generation aged into a valuable consumer group. In 1980, 26.3 percent of Americans over 60 who moved chose Florida as their new home; in 1985, there was a joke about the early bird on Golden Girls, cementing the relationship between Florida, the elderly, and the early bird in pop culture. “It is popular with those on a budget, senior citizens, and especially in resort areas like Florida,” the 1994 Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink said of the early bird. By 1995, Nation’s Restaurant News reported that “senior citizens represent in reality an imposing discretionary spending bloc for food service operators,” and that restaurateurs were adding amenities to make their restaurants more appealing to seniors.

For a moment, economic necessity even brought the gospel of the early bird to the young. In 2010, the New York Times reported that the early bird was booming in Florida, as the recession enticed younger diners to partake in off-hours eating. But as the economy recovered, they abandoned it, just like their parents and grandparents.


It’s impossible to talk about retirement trends in America without talking about the Villages, the 115,000-person retirement community in central Florida that is the country’s fastest growing metro areaBuzzfeed described it as “a notorious boomtown for boomers who want to spend their golden years with access to 11 a.m. happy hours, thousands of activities, and no-strings-attached sex, all lorded over by one elusive billionaire.” It’s the epitome of what modern retirement can be for the wealthy and white (of which the Villages is 98 percent) — wild, carefree, and not dictated by Social Security checks. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2018 at 9:55 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Food

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