Dining Out and Paying the Price

That bowl of corn flakes is going to cost you.

The price of milk is up 75 percent since last year, which means a bowl of cereal that cost 44 cents last year is now running closer to 50 cents, and prices are only expected to rise.

The trend of food inflation extends beyond the grocery store — eating out costs more, too. Higher food prices have Denver restaurant owner Noel Cunningham literally eating his losses.

"The cost of meat has gone up. The cost of butter has gone up," he said. "Give a little to the customers, give a little to yourself — it's trying to keep that balance."

To help compensate, Cunningham has been forced to raise menu prices. In the last year alone, popular items such as sea bass have jumped from $28 to $35, while a goat cheese appetizer went from $8 to $9.

Customers say they have noticed and are shocked. One diner said, "We've talked about eating out less, or getting takeout from places that are cheaper, instead of restaurant food."

Nationwide, restaurant menu prices have increased 3.6 percent in 2007 alone, outpacing the rate of inflation.

"We've really had a perfect storm on the food commodities side, and then you add that on to labor — almost every cost item that matters to them is up pretty significantly this year," said Ashley Woodruff, senior analyst with the Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group.

Average individual checks are up 6 percent at the Cheesecake Factory, 7 percent at California Pizza Kitchen, 3.5 percent at Chili's and 4 percent at Cracker Barrel in just two years.

Even those who can afford a chicken Parmesan entree or two are likely feeling the heat. The average meal at the nation's 20 most expensive restaurants has jumped to $143 from $85 — an 11.6 percent jump from last year.

Some restaurants have come up with creative ways to cut costs and their customers' waistlines at the same time.

The Cheesecake Factory has lowered the cost of appetizers during certain hours, while TGIFriday's is offering smaller portions at lower prices.

Then there's always the old-fashioned way of saving while dining — being thrifty.

"If you go into a restaurant and the chicken Parm that you normally order is a dollar more, you don't actually have to order it," Woodruff said. "You could then order spaghetti with tomato sauce."

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