An increasing number of casual-dining operators are turning to turkey to help reignite sluggish sales while catering to those consumers who are looking for more nutritious dining-out options.

As many chains in the casual segment continue their slow climb out of the sales-sapping recession, chefs and executives are finding that turkey can be a versatile addition to a restaurant's menu mix.

“Turkey presents an opportunity for casual-dining chains to make their menus more relevant and to continue to attract customers,” says Fred LeFranc, chief executive and president of Results Thru Strategy, a consulting firm based in Charlotte, N.C. “It's a lower-cost protein and a healthy alternative, and it lends itself to multiple menu categories.”

LeFranc points out that casual-dining chains are being challenged on several levels. “Fast-casual chains are taking lunch away, while consumers are showing that they don't want to spend at dinner — and if they do, they want the dining experience offered by polished casual chains like The Cheesecake Factory.”

The segment as a whole demonstrated modest growth in the most recent fiscal year. According to Nation's Restaurant News' Top 100 Annual Report, total U.S. system-wide sales for the 27 casual-dining chains increased 3.4 percent to $36.7 billion from $35.5 billion in the preceding year.

However, many of the larger, national chains continue to languish, LeFranc says.

“They're really battling for share of stomach right now,” he says. “The heady days of the 1980s and '90s when ‘if you built it, they would come’ are over.”

LeFranc suggests that menuing turkey can lure some customers back. “People are focusing on more nutritious foods, and turkey has a health halo. Additionally, it's versatile — it works in salads, entrées, sandwiches, appetizers and bowls. It also is a good value. It seems foolish not to capitalize on turkey.”

And, increasingly, casual-dining operators appear to be pursuing that initiative. In addition to offering a wide range of turkey sandwiches, a growing number of chains are menuing turkey burgers alongside more traditional beef burgers. The Cheesecake Factory in Calabasas Hills, Calif., menus a Grilled Turkey Burger on its health-centric SkinnyLicious menu alongside a Turkey & Avocado Sandwich. Both dishes were added when the chain debuted the 50-plus-item SkinnyLicious menu in 2011. All main- course items on the SkinnyLicious menu contain 590 or fewer calories.

The burger, which incorporates ground turkey, fresh mushrooms, garlic and spices, is served with grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and a green salad. David Overton, founder, chairman and chief executive of the 181-unit Cheesecake Factory, says, “Mushrooms pair really well with poultry — they help accentuate the flavor of the turkey.”

Both the burger and the sandwich “have broad appeal with a wide range of guests,” Overton says. “Offering turkey is part of our strategy of offering something for everyone. There is no 'veto vote' when guests are choosing to dine at The Cheesecake Factory.”

While the chain is not currently working on any new dishes with turkey, it is open to adding more items in the future, he notes.

Darden Restaurants' innovative Seasons 52 concept, based in Orlando, Fla., features a wood-fired turkey burger with barbecue glaze, melted Jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickle served on a sesame ciabatta. Max & Erma's offers a Turkey Avocado Swiss Burger topped with melted Swiss cheese, sautéed mushrooms, avocado and ranch dressing served on a wheat bun. Numerous other casual operators are menuing turkey burgers, too, including Bar Louie, Ninety-Nine Restaurant & Pub, O'Charley's, BJ's Restaurant & Brewery and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers & Spirits.

Many casual brands, in fact, are finding a variety of creative ways to showcase turkey. Barbecue specialist Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill in Orlando, Fla., smokes its own turkey breast and serves it as an entrée. Jason Gronlund, vice president of culinary for the 65-unit chain, says the turkey breasts are first seasoned with a rub, tied to retain their shape and then smoked over hickory wood for about three hours. The turkey breast is sliced thinly and plated at service.

Turkey is very popular at Smokey Bones, Gronlund says, both for flavor and health reasons. “It takes the smoke very well. At the same time, people want fewer calories, and turkey is a meat that's healthier for you.”

Smokey Bones allows guests to order turkey by itself or in combination with other smoked proteins like beef ribs, brisket, hand-pulled pork, chicken breast or spiced sausage, together with different sides and a selection of sauces. “Customers can create their own meal,” he says.

Smokey Bones also serves smoked turkey breast on its West Coast Club sandwich, a triple-decker that includes peppered bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado and chipotle mayonnaise. Gronlund says it ranks as one of the concept's top-selling sandwiches. He also is exploring the possibility of offering an open-faced turkey sandwich. “Turkey isn't just for Thanksgiving,” he says. “People miss it during the year.”

Turkey is an indisputable signature protein for Mimi's Cafe, the 138-unit chain owned by Groupe Le Duff S.A., as evidenced by its best-selling, year-round traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The meal features turkey breast that is slow-roasted in-house daily, mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread dressing, fresh vegetables and orange-apple-cranberry relish. “People come in especially for it,” says Mimi's Executive Chef Katie Sutton. “They eat it in July.”

At the same time, the 35-year-old chain does brisk take-out business during the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season when it offers its Turkey Holiday Feast To-Go. The package includes a 10 to 12-lb. whole pre-cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and mashed sweet potatoes, cornbread stuffing, broccoli, gravy, cranberry relish, carrot raisin nut loaves and a whole pumpkin pie. It is priced at $99.99. The chain sold about 12,000 whole turkeys last year during the holidays, Sutton says,

But turkey makes its way into other dishes at Mimi's as well. For example, it is featured on three sandwiches: Warm Turkey, Brie and Apple served with apricot chutney on a croissant; Warm Turkey served on ciabatta and layered with pesto, tomatoes, mozzarella, bacon and avocado; and a Turkey Club with bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo and sourdough bread.

In addition, turkey sausage is offered on the chain's breakfast menu as an accompaniment to waffles or eggs. Sutton also is testing turkey sausage with an egg white omelet.

“Mimi's has been selling turkey since it opened,” she says, “and last year we used 650,000 lbs. of turkey. So, yes, you can say that turkey is a big part of Mimi's heritage.”