One of the restaurant industry’s most effective value promotions, which started during the throes of the recent recession, has become a mainstay menu offer at Maggiano’s Little Italy.
As restaurants continue to wrestle with ways to offer value to their guests, the division of Dallas-based Brinker International Inc. is celebrating the success of its twist on the two-for-one offer. Since starting as a promotion in May 2009, about six million Classic Pastas have gone home with guests who order the $12.95 menu item to eat in the restaurant and receive a version wrapped to go at the end of their meal.
Steve Provost, president of Maggiano’s Little Italy, said in an interview Friday that the nine-item menu section, now a permanent fixture, and take-home lagniappe is “a gift to the guests to reward their loyalty.”
On Monday, casual-dining competitor Olive Garden, a division of Darden Restaurants, debuted a similar promotion. Olive Garden’s “Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow” promotion which will be offered through Nov. 18, allows guests to choose one of five entrées, priced at $12.95, for dinner, served with unlimited soup or salad and breadsticks, and then get a second entrée to take home.
To celebrate the six-million-Classic-Pastas-sold milestone, participating Maggiano’s units will make a meal donation to Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity, for each Classic Pasta ordered during October.
Maggiano’s is also planning a full-day Classic Pasta give-away on Oct. 22.
In a conversation with Nation’s Restaurant News, Provost recapped the Classic Pastas platform and offered his insights into why it has worked so well.
How did Classic Pastas begin?
It started back in the spring of 2009 when, like everybody else in the restaurant industry, we were facing the cliff and the articles about the next depression. And like everybody else, we saw significant traffic declines. In a business such as ours, which is so high volume — our average annual sales are $9 million — when you lose up to 10 percent of guests, that has significant financial impact.
What was the impact?
Under the leadership of my predecessor Wyman Roberts, who now runs Chili’s, we put together what at the time what was a short-term promotion and ran it and saw an immediate reversal of those guest trends and saw not only new guests but increased frequency among guests who hadn’t thought of Maggiano’s beyond a special-occasion place for birthdays or anniversaries.
How did it move from a promotion to a menu mainstay?
We ran it a couple of times using limited marketing. We rely mostly on word of mouth. We made it permanent in August of 2010. That was a huge decision to make. As we say, “This offer will only expire when you do.” As you can imagine, it was a significant investment. But we felt like we were entering an entirely new economy and things that we had all grown up with the last 20 years — rising incomes and an ever-expanding luxury class in America — were starting to change. This menu change, and we don’t use the word “offer,” was in line with that. The guest has rewarded us. We’ve enjoyed 10 successive quarters of sales growth as of the June end to fiscal 2012, and this has been one of the primary drivers behind it.
How does the Classic Pastas platform work?
They order and what should happen is the server will inform you, if you aren’t already aware of it, that with this dish, lasagna or Bowtie Aglio or baked ziti, you get a complimentary pasta from ourto take home. At that moment, we ask them to make their order. Sometimes guests will wait until the end of the meal and they can choose then if they want to. Then at the end of the meal, the server brings out the Classic Pasta in a classic Maggiano’s bag. We send home millions of those every year. It’s in special packaging that’s especially designed to be reheatable in an oven or microwave. I eat them the second day all the time because I never have any time to cook. And they are delicious. That was one of the big things we learned three years ago. The value to the guest is excellent. They realized they were getting a dish that was prepared by our chefs, just as if they had eaten in our restaurant.
How do enhance the chef-on-premise aspect of Maggiano’s?
A lot of times the chefs themselves will deliver the bag. This is like going back to the 1930s in St. Louis or Brooklyn or San Francisco. When you went over to your Italian friends’ house, you inevitably left with something to take home.
What other perceived benefits did you discover?
The other thing we realized, going back three years ago, was that as the economy began to hit this long ice patch people were saying, “I really can’t go back and spend more time cooking or in the grocery store.” Some would say, “I haven’t been cooking that much as I don’t remember how.” And others would say, “It’s not like my life is getting less crazy with this slowing economy.” So they were really looking for ways, even the affluent guests, to stretch their time and their dollars. And this is the perfect solution.
Besides the Feeding America donations, what other promotions are you doing this month?
On Monday, Oct. 22, we’re having National On-the-House Classic Pasta Day, where anyone who comes into a Maggiano’s, no matter what they buy, whether it’s a New York strip steak or rigatoni or a banquet or delivery or a beer, we’ll send them away with a Classic Pasta to take home. This is our attempt to say thanks to our guests and to generate word-of-mouth awareness.
What has been the upshot?
We were very nervous when we made the decision. We knew it was going to require some changes to our business to support it. But the guest has rewarded us with their loyalty and frequency over the past three years.
Maggiano's has 45 locations worldwide. Parent Brinker International has more than 1,500 Chili’s Grill & Bar restaurants in 33 nations and two U.S. territories.