It was about 20 years ago that the casual dining boom got started in the United States. It was a golden, batter-dipped age: We were lured in by the novelty of mozzarella sticks and artichoke dip, marveled at the cluttered walls and uniform flair and gulped down two-liter mango margaritas like every night was Friday.
But the bloom is off the bloomin' onion when it comes to casual dining. The recession has customers trading down to fast food and the growing "fast-casual" segment of takeout specialists (think Chipotle, Noodles or Panera). Over the last couple decades, while drive-thru burger joints have kept their prices flat, the typical bill at casual dining chains has multiplied three or four times. And the quality of the food has remained pretty much the same while fast food has become better and more diverse. Add to that grumbles about predictable, high-fat menus and stale décor and it's understandable why in 2009 the category was down 5 percent to 8 percent with a 3 percent to 5 percent drop forecast for 2010.
But some chains are figuring out ways to keep customers coming through their doors. Red Lobster, for one, has designed a quick-turnaround lunch service designed to draw the time-strapped crowd, and its new wood-fired entrees are appealing to the health-conscious. Ruby Tuesday redesigned its menu, retrained staff, modernized its décor--and brought in almost 2 percent more customers in late 2009 than in late 2008.
There are plenty of steps to take in a down market, and it's important to remember that even individual franchisees are not powerless. We spoke with some of the leading thinkers in the casual dining field to find out what you can do to put a little flair back into your business.
- Think locally
Casual dining chains are some of the most aggressive national advertisers out there. (Remember the "I want my baby back" jingle?) The problem is, plenty of franchisees think that's enough, especially after a splashy grand opening with big media buys. "Local franchisees are advised to put 1 to 5 percent of their money into local advertising by their franchisors, but they think the national TV commercials are enough to drive customers," says James Sinclair of OnSite Consulting, a Los Angeles firm that helps rescue flailing restaurants. "We often suggest local marketing like sponsoring soccer teams, participating in fundraisers, things like that. There's no better advertising than getting buzz in the community." Casual dining mom-and-pops haven't been hurt as much by the recession, mainly because people feel a strong connection to the businesses. Becoming a local leader and integral part of the community, versus a faceless chain, can go a long way to developing customer loyalty.
- Speed up lunch
Lunch is when the fast-food joints and casual restaurants go head to head--and where casual dining loses out. "Business users want to get in and out quickly, and most don't have a full hour for lunch," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food-industry consulting and research firm. Shaving 10 to 15 minutes off a visit can mean the difference between drawing a lunch crowd or sitting idle for the afternoon. Cracker Barrel and Chili's have invested in system-wide redesigns of their kitchens and service procedures to help cut big chunks off their service time, but franchisees can help keep things moving by investing in more lunchtime staff, making sure servers are trained and efficient and streamlining the lunch menu to keep the kitchen on track. Tristano also suggests keeping prices competitive. Having lunch entrees in the $5-to-$8 range makes it less likely that budget customers will shift to the burger shack if times get tougher.
- Push the bottle
Booze is always a high-margin item for casual restaurants, but more importantly it's a gateway to gaining customers for dinner. According to Technomic's research, only 14 percent of customers find occasion to drink in the afternoon, which is why national chains have started placing a new emphasis on earlier happy hours. Ruby Tuesday recently revamped its bar lineup, retrained its bartenders and introduced $5 signature premium drinks. T.G.I. Friday's offered free appetizers at the bar last year in an attempt to draw people in during the dead afternoon hours. Starting drink specials at 2 or 3 p.m. is a great way to attract shift workers, business people scheduling casual meetings or retirees looking for afternoon deals. "You have to remember," says Jeff Davis, president of Sandelman & Associates, a food-service research firm in Irving, Texas, "when times are tough alcohol is the one thing people don't cut back on."
- Push the plate
Besides offering an extended happy hour on booze, create a happy hour on menu items, suggests Tristano, who points out that Steak 'n Shake's afternoon half-price milkshake promotion can easily lead to an order of burger and fries, and Braxton Seafood Grill's happy hour, when it sells lobsters at cost, often gets orders for a few beers and all the fixings. One innovative strategy to woo the late-afternoon crowd is offering items at ascending prices--$3 appetizers at 3 p.m., $4 at 4 p.m. and so on. "The only way to maximize opportunities is to trade up," Davis says. "The main goal when you get someone through the door is to trade up."
- Focus on the quality
"If you're at a Mexican restaurant, people are going to notice if you're scraping broken tortilla chips from the bottom of the barrel and not filling their glasses to the top," Tristano says. Many chains also make the mistake of charging for soft drink refills or reducing the number of servers to save money. This sends a clear message to the customer that you're struggling. If it is necessary to reduce costs, he suggests making cuts across the board instead of pulling savings in the areas of servers and food costs. Instead of switching from a good cheddar to a block of "cheese product," try to renegotiate prices with vendors. "Be careful to negotiate pricing and to take cost savings out of other areas," he says, "not from areas where customers will feel it most."
- Don't chase Subway
One of the big temptations in casual dining is to simply slash prices until hordes of $5 deal-seekers start filling the tables. But Sinclair says that's exactly the wrong tactic. "All that does is draw in deal hunters, and when the promotion is over, they won't return," he says. "You can't focus on the short term. You have to be focused on what is going to make the customer return. If you're going to discount, rebuild the menu so the price of the dish doesn't lose you money." The same thing goes for cutting portions. For the most part, consumers see smaller portions as a loss of value--and the savings to the restaurant are small. In the end, Sinclair says, "you're not saving money per dish, you're losing customer satisfaction." Some portion-cutting campaigns have been successful: T.G.I. Friday's Right Portion, Right Price campaign hit a sweet spot and The Cheesecake Factory scored when it brought its lunch portions down to human scale. But the strategy was about "right-sizing" ridiculous portions. "Some places serve way too much," Davis says. "Why pay $15 for a salad that I can only eat a third of?"
- Give them something special
It might seem obvious: People go to a specific restaurant to get food they can't get anywhere else. But that idea has become murky in casual dining, where fried appetizers and flatiron steaks have all melded into culinary clichs. Tristano says there are two ways to give your menu an edge: Offer items that are a healthful alternative for those looking to adopt a "better-for-you lifestyle" or dishes that most diners can't cook at home. "Quality Mexican entrees are difficult for people to make at home, or Asian appetizers like pot stickers. For crme brle you need to have that little flamethrower," he says. "People are drawn to items that require culinary expertise or ingredients that are difficult to purchase."
- Reward loyalty
The best way to earn loyalty--and repeat visits--is to provide quality food and service. But Americans are suckers for deals, and loyalty programs are one of the things that keep diners coming back to their favorite booth. Sinclair suggests implementing programs that don't necessarily hand out freebies but still provide something meaningful to diners. Rewards can include priority seating, discounts or rebates on gift cards or--one of Sinclair's favorites--the chance to sign up and win prize money. "The idea," he says, "is to get customers involved in the brand and get them to feel a natural partnership with you."
- Get it out the door
Fast-casual establishments are striking a chord with Americans--the food is better than a drive-thru burger joint, but it doesn't require an hour of time and a 20-percent tip. Full-service casual restaurants, however, can easily mimic fast casual. System-wide, Denny's and IHOP are experimenting with fast-casual annexes attached to their restaurants, and Buffalo Wild Wings, which has dedicated takeout ordering stations, is successfully bridging the fast- and full-service divide. Tristano says providing alternatives to sit-down dining--whether call-ahead, drive-thrus or catering--is a great way to create new revenue streams. "The more you drive off-premises growth, the greater opportunity you'll have to weather the economic storm," he says. "You have to understand what the customer wants and adapt to this environment and this economy."
- Take time to train
In the constant rush of the restaurant business, sometimes it's hard to stop and take a good hard look at the big picture. "We don't always have time to train employees or go through a full menu evaluation," Davis says. "Maybe, with the recession, we have that time now." Don't be scared off by the extra investment involved in training--when restaurants are fighting tooth and nail to earn repeat customers, exceptional service is a huge factor in their deciding where to go, and good training often leads to less staff turnover. "It will cost money," he says, "but in the longer term, people who continue to invest in their businesses will succeed. Excellence always wins, top to bottom."
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.