Writer Jaya Saxena ventured into South Florida’s east coast a few years ago and decided to go “full old person” for the weekend. That included taking part in a beloved American tradition, the early bird dinner. But she found that baby boomers and the ailing middle class are killing the value meal mascot. The following is excerpted from her article
“The Extinction of the Early Bird” on Eater.com.
“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, 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 next day, we ventured to Scully’s Restaurant, and at 5 p.m. just three tables were occupied. 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 origin of the early bird special traces to Social Security benefits, which arrived with the New Deal expansion of the welfare state, ushering 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. 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. 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.
“But where the old are rich, the early bird is pointless—it’s a product of and for the middle class, an offering for people who eat out regularly, but need to be a little savvier about it to stretch out their Social Security, pensions, or IRAs. The rub is that the middle class itself is declining: Between 1970 and 2014, the share of income held by middle-class households dropped from 62 percent to 43 percent, while the ratio of American workers to American retirees has fallen for the past few decades.
“Whether rich, poor, or merely one of the declining middle class, though, few of the new Olds want to embrace their age. Where the early bird lives, it does so under a different name. Whenever I mentioned it to a restaurateur, they acted like “early bird” was akin to saying “Macbeth” at the theater. A manager at Mamma Mia corrected me when I used the term, insisting it was their “sunset menu.” “Twilight menu” is another favorite euphemism, and while most restaurants at the Villages don’t have early birds, most of them do have happy hours where food is also discounted.
“The early bird was a touchstone of the middle class that may be unrecognizable a generation from now. It was also as much a tourist attraction as it was a thriving enterprise, something for visitors to gawk at and laugh about. But more than anything, it was a promise that there would be a retirement. You may have to eat at 4 p.m., but you wouldn’t be sleeping in your son’s basement. You were taken care of in some small way, able to live on your own and enjoy a hot steak and a social life as a reward for your lifetime of work. While South Florida was once a habitat where the early bird could thrive, fast food, changing expectations of retirement, and a general unwillingness to overtly cater to the elderly are threatening its existence.”