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Waiter, Bring Me a Fresh Idea 10 strategies that are working in the tough restaurant economy

By Jason Daley

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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.

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