Wait Times at Casual U.S. Restaurants Flat

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-Average waits for a table at casual dining chains were little changed compared with a year ago, a monthly survey showed, though higher traffic at steakhouses showed U.S. consumers are shrugging off concerns about the first U.S. case of mad cow disease.

The average wait time at 200 casual dining on the evening of January 23 was 28 minutes, compared with 28.3 minutes last year, according to Smith Barney analyst Mark Kalinowski, who conducts the poll. Longer wait times are considered good for the industry, since they indicate stronger demand.

Average wait times fell at Darden Restaurants Inc.'s Olive Garden, ,and Smokey Bones BBQ chains. But Kalinowski noted that the 9 percent decline in average wait times to 27.6 minutes at Red Lobster, which has been struggling to draw in customers for the last year, is the smallest in five months. California Pizza Kitchen Inc. and Ruby Tuesday Inc. were among the restaurants that posted the biggest gains in average wait times. -Reuters

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