What is in this article?:
- Bret Thorn, Nancy Kruse discuss the state of casual dining
- Casual dining a victim of its own success
In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they discuss troubles in the casual-dining segment.
NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn says he’s unsure if casual-dining chains’ fixes are enough to jumpstart the segment.
Nancy, the casual-dining segment is in trouble. The numbers speak for themselves. Traffic and same-store sales are down at many stalwarts like Olive Garden, Applebee’s and Red Lobster.
There are a number of reasons for the decline, apart from the general economic malaise and the lousy winter that kept potential guests at home. The comparatively nimble fast-casual segment is offering food of similar quality and often more creativity than casual-dining restaurants, and in what consumers see as a quicker and more customizable format.
It’s not that customers at casual-dining restaurants can’t get their food however they like — with sauce on the side, no mushrooms, string beans instead of mashed potatoes and so on. But the fast-casual format pioneered by Chipotle that lets customers dictate exactly what goes into their food and watch as it’s assembled has undeniable appeal. So does the fast-casual format’s delivery of quick meals without the fuss of a server — and without the need to tip.
When consumers want to make more of an occasion out of it, they head to restaurants in the burgeoning polished-casual segment — Del Frisco’s Grille, Seasons 52 and Brio Tuscan Grille — with more attentive service and fancier food, such as venison chops and ahi tuna steak.
What’s a casual chain to do?
Olive Garden and Hard Rock Cafe completely revamped their menus. Olive Garden added lighter items, a customizable pasta section and — in a move that seems a little desperate to me — a hamburger at lunch. Hard Rock Cafe reworked from soup to nuts every item on its menu, including trendier salads, smoked items and hamburgers. In the process, Hard Rock Cafe cut its total number of menu items by 15 percent.
On the other hand, Chili’s has expanded its menu and added new categories, including pizza. The chain is also experimenting with tabletop technology that lets guests order and pay for food at their table, as are Applebee’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chevy’s Fresh Mex and others.
Bertucci’s has streamlined its lunch service, greeting guests with warm rolls and bringing the check to the table along with their food, ideally making for a faster meal.
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers is rolling out seasonal premium hamburgers developed by fine-dining chefs. The first one, developed by Laurent Tourondel, had black peppered bacon, extra sharp Cheddar cheese and a barbecue sauce developed by Tourondel. To top that off, the burger was flavored with alderwood smoked sea salt. The burger specialist also hired a corporate mixologist and upgraded its bar program.
I wonder if those fixes will work, or if casual dining is really that broken. Some fast-casual restaurants are actually trying to be more like casual-dining restaurants, at least at dinner, where they’ve found that guests like being waited on and having their food brought to them. Mama Fu’s, a 19-unit chain based in Austin, Texas, was a pioneer of what it calls this “flex-casual” format that implements table service at night.
What do you think, Nancy? Are these established casual dining brands done for, and if not, what can they do to revitalize themselves?