Will the Kitchen of the Future Shrink and Disappear?

By Bill Primavera

The Home Guru

Having attempted to project lifestyles trends throughout most of my marketing and real estate careers, I can tell you that it can be a pretty dicey business which, when it all plays out with the march of time, can make you look either brilliant or foolish.

More than 30 years ago, after having served as the first director of public relations at The Culinary Institute of America, I established my own marketing firm to leverage my experience and take advantage of the national surge of interest in food, wine, and restaurants, areas in which I concentrated. It was a time when the home kitchen was becoming hallowed ground – one of pleasure and creativity, rather than drudgery – and chefs were becoming celebrities in their own right.

As a public educational platform, I created and operated an annual conference for food and lifestyles editors who would come from around the country to exchange ideas about the way people cooked at home and how they spent their discretionary income on food away from home.

Among our speakers were high profile arbiters of taste and lifestyles, from Martha Stewart and Dr. Joyce Brothers to Larry King and such famous “foodies” as Emeril Lagasse and Julia Child.  Sponsors included food and beverage manufacturers, commodity groups and appliance brands that would support us with research and surveys about what was coming down the pike.

Of course, much of our attention was devoted to the home kitchen.

Prior to this time, most of us had little more than galley kitchens measuring perhaps 10’ x 10,’  By the late 1980s, however, the kitchen was becoming the nerve center of the home, increasing two and three fold in size and featuring top grade cabinetry, granite countertops, high-tech equipment, a home management desk, television and spacious eat-in areas. The new work island was stage center for both family meals and home entertainment.

Fast forward to today, however, where based on rising trends, I’m wondering if the kitchen is about to fall into decline.

True, there is a plethora of feature stories in the media about dream kitchens, what they feature and how they are designed, and it would seem that consumers are responding in a frenzied way, judging from what I see in new and renovated homes on the market.

But in truth, surveys tell us that homemakers (now there’s an old-fashioned term for you) are spending less time in the kitchen and eating out more. Maybe they’re watching cooking shows on TV, but they’re doing less of it at home. In the past 50 years, the percentage of food dollars spent in restaurants has nearly doubled from 25 percent to 48 percent this year.

There are other trends that have me questioning the future of the home kitchen. For one, the population of those over 65 is now 40 million or 13 percent of the population, and in some states the percentage is much higher, such as in Florida where those over 65 jump to 17 percent of the population. By that age, a couple is living as empty nesters and has probably lost the spark for cooking at home. Why do you think there are early bird specials for seniors in restaurants?

Also, the rise of two-income families doesn’t leave the time we once had for meal preparation. Today, more people who do cook at home are taking advantage of pre-prepared meals, purchased on the way home from work, or those reconstituted directly from the frozen food aisles.

These trends tend to make me think that our kitchens may someday be like the galleys of aircraft that basically take food prepared in another place and just keep it warm.

In direct opposition to my theory, however, is the opinion of my friend and kitchen advisor Rich Leahy, owner of Atlantic Appliance, who responded to my prediction by email as follows: 

 “Dinner time has been important since the earliest cavemen gathered around the first fire that was their kitchen. I find that people now use the kitchen not only for family meals, but also as a social gathering place for events and parties.

“More than ever, the kitchen will become a refuge from the stress society places on us. And, the components of the kitchen are evolving to deal with our spending less time at home. For instance, the GE Monogram Speed Cook Oven can cook up to eight times faster than a conventional oven with no preheating. I wonder what the cavemen or women would have thought about that (with no offense to the Geico cave person).”

With this input, my theory might be modified.  Perhaps the formal living room and dining room, which have already declined in functionality, will morph into one large social center that may, just incidentally, include cooking.

For those of you young enough to be around another 50 years from now, keep your eye out and remember, the question was raised here first.

 Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® affiliated with Coldwell Banker and a marketing practitioner who writes regularly as The Home Guru. For questions or comments about the housing market, or selling or buying a home, he can be reached directly at 914-522-2076.