Another meal away from home, a relaxed American restaurant lures friends and me into its dining room with all sorts of promises affixed to all sorts of banners, chalkboards and table tents: late hours, discounts for military members on Mondays and “ladies” on Wednesday, even curbside pickup service. Spotting my group on the sidewalk, a hostess races to open the door for us; seated in a booth, we spring for a deal that gives every diner a taste of two entrees for as little as $10.99.
Convenience, value and more recently a solution to “food envy” help explain why Applebee’s is the world’s largest casual chain restaurant, with $4.2 billion in domestic sales last year.
Meanwhile, at a meat market with a disputable association to another continent, colorful spice jars filled with the restaurant’s secret seasonings practically turn the foyer into an art gallery. Nearby is a cold-water dispenser with a spa sensibility: sliced lemons and limes floating inside.
If you have to wait for a table, Outback Steakhouse, which is in the process of freshening up half of its 979 restaurants, wants to make sure you’re comfortable.
Are there tips independent restaurants can pick up from casual chain concepts, a category loosely defined as operations involving full service and bars, hold the high prices? A recent tour of some of the biggest brands in the business — Cheesecake Factory, Red Lobster and TGI Fridays included — suggests that warm bread and meal deals reinforce consistency and value, hallmarks of that dining segment.
One of the big advantages many chains have over sole proprietors is the time and effort they take to train the staff, spending from $25,000 to $500,000 on in-depth training programs that touch on product knowledge, service strategies, pre-shift briefings and continual coaching, or fine-tuning, says Bob Brown. He’s president of the Ashburn-based Bob Brown Service Solutions and a consultant who has coached local chains (Great American Restaurants, Matchbox, ThinkFoodGroup), national ones (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) and even Disney.
Some independent restaurant operators “don’t know what they don’t know,” says Brown. It’s one thing to give a server a menu and have him memorize it, quite another to “bring it alive” through a “food show” that let’s him see, say, the whole fish, smell the saffron and touch the fresh rosemary used in a restaurant’s dishes. The latter lesson, says Brown, “stays in your mind forever.”
It helps, of course, that casual-dining concepts typically involve a single menu.
Pulling out the stops
The stakes for restaurants of all stripes are high. Trips to casual-dining chain restaurants account for 11 percent of all industry visits, and if that doesn’t sound like many bowls of pasta or slices of cheesecake, consider this: As of March, Americans had eaten away from home 61 billion times this year. Still, that’s down from more than 62 billion industry visits in 2009, according to NPD Group, the market research giant. Casual chain restaurants, which experienced no growth over last year, have “lost a lot of ground,” says Bonnie Riggs, an NPD restaurant industry analyst. But traffic at independent restaurants is down 2 percent compared with the same months in 2012.
Hit hardest by the recession, millennials have retreated the most, cutting back 50 percent over the past five years. Trying to lure them in, Applebee’s recently launched “Take Two,” which lets patrons of any age select two main courses for under $13 and thus erase what the chain calls “food envy”: in this case, the nagging wonder whether you should have ordered the four-ounce blackened sirloin with potatoes tossed in tomato-pesto sauce rather than the lemon shrimp fettuccine with fresh spinach and lemon zest your tablemate got. (Go for the steak.)
Baby boomers, who were raised on fast food and have traded up to full-service establishments, “keep the industry at least flat,” says Riggs.
Biting into the casual chain business, particularly during lunch hours, are quick-service but high-quality places including Chipotle, which uses naturally raised, antibiotic-free pork, and Sweetgreen, the salad purveyor committed to buying ingredients in season and from local farmers.
“Everybody is going after the same very small discretionary budget,” says Kathy Hayden, a food service analyst with Mintel, another leading market research firm.
Appreciated for their consistency but mindful of the need to stay fresh, casual chain restaurants are responding by “pulling out all the stops,” says Riggs.
This summer, Olive Garden rolled out Tastes of Italy Small Plates, a promotion of snacks including grilled chicken spiedini and risotto “bites” at $3.99 each. The selections address a nation that’s still hungry for small plates. “People like something new,” says Jay Spenchian, Olive Garden’s vice president of marketing.
For its part, the 700-unit Red Lobster revamped its menu last October so that 60 percent of its list is priced under $15 and a quarter of the choices are non-seafood, helping eliminate the dreaded “veto vote” by consumers who don’t like surf. In January, the chain reached out to Hispanic diners with an advertising campaign inviting them to try “La Experiencia de Red Lobster.”
Watching your weight? Casual chain restaurants are eager to help you monitor any dieting, with Applebee’s serving lemon Parmesan shrimp over rice at under 550 calories and Olive Garden devoting a section of its menu to Lighter Italian Fare: lasagna primavera with grilled chicken and other entrees at under 575 calories. All this, even though only 24 percent of U.S. consumers say they eat healthfully when they dine out, the NPD Group reported this month.
In an attempt to attract more patrons, many chains are extending their hours or “day parts.” Applebee’s stays open at least until midnight where permitted, and Outback Steakhouse now serves lunch seven days a week.
A quarter of casual chain customers are known as “deal seekers” looking for the best price. “Meal deals get in traffic,” says Hayden, the food service analyst, “but not loyalty.” Ultimately, “it’s the food that matters.”
Bret Thorn, senior food editor at the trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News, says the changes in casual chain restaurants are “driven by a more discerning public, and that’s driven by an increased interest in food” — thank you, “Top Chef” and not-so-top chefs on TV and elsewhere.
Even basic dishes are being rethought. One of the first things Mike Archer, a former executive with Morton’s the Steakhouse, did when he became president of Applebee’s five years ago was reinvent its hamburger, previously made from frozen patties and partially cooked in advance. These days, the casual chain’s hamburger is made with fresh ground chuck and grilled to order. Applebee’s sandwich will never be mistaken for a Palena burger, but this diner appreciated the juicy patty, the toasted bun and the gentle price, $8.49, frozen (but not inedible) fries included.
“Chain restaurants are good at finding that sweet spot between the adventurous and the bizarre,” says Thorn, who points to the arrival of sweet Thai chili sauce to accompany McNuggets at McDonald’s. The general public often has more of a taste for what “seems authentic” than the real deal, he says. Of the new “Korean BBQ Chicken Stir-Fry” topped with kimchi slaw at P.F. Chang’s, he says, “I don’t think your average Korean would recognize that as authentic Korean . . . but for P.F. Chang’s customers, it’s close enough.” Similarly, the unlimited breadsticks and fried lasagna at Olive Garden speak more to mainstream American than traditional Italian tastes.
Yet, says Thorn, “once people’s horizons are expanded, they stay expanded.” The house wines at Olive Garden, for instance, have been modified to be less sweet and more aroma-driven and fruit-forward.
The president of Applebee’s tells his corporate kitchen team in Kansas City “you have more influence on how America eats” than even the starriest chefs in the country. Given that his company serves a million people a day, Archer could be right.
Quantity vs. quality
Don’t expect independents to start peddling two-for-one entrees a la Olive Garden, which recently allowed customers to choose one of five main courses to eat in the restaurant and another to take home for later. Given the huge price breaks offered by most chain restaurants, “they’re almost giving the food away,” says Gus DeMillo of Passion Food Hospitality, a collection of restaurants that includes Ceiba, DC Coast and District Commons in Washington. “They’re buying in mass quantities and selling food for cheap. We’re more about quality of food and creating relationships with people in our restaurants.” Plus, he adds, “there’s only so much tilapia you can sell.”
Not that independent operators aren’t chasing after stomachs and wallets, too, as evinced by their participation in Restaurant Week, happy hour and pre-theater promotions, among other recipes for filling dining room seats.
Culinary epiphanies eluded me as I explored the menus of my subjects, but some dishes made me see glints of light if not actual stars. The minestrone at the Olive Garden has a pleasant homey quality (“We make our soups and sauces from scratch,” the chain’s vice president of marketing told me), and the kale salad with almonds, apples, cranberries and green beans at the Cheesecake Factory is something I could see White House assistant chef Sam Kass tossing for the first family, albeit with less of the buttermilk-black-pepper dressing. The recipient of the nine-ounce sirloin at my table at Outback Steakhouse praised the $13.99 entree even before he sliced into it. “This looks like it does on the menu!” (I preferred the snowy baked potato to the grilled-as-we-asked-for-it beef.) As for Outback’s nearly 2,000-calorie Bloomin’ Onion, the subject of several paragraphs in a recent review of the chain by LA Weekly’s food critic Besha Rodell, I concur with the native Australian’s assessment: “Crispy, oily, sweet, crunchy,” she wrote. “A big slick of salt and grease. Slightly disgusting.” And then: “Completely addictive.”
Paper, not plastic
My sorriest meals were endured at Red Lobster and TGI Fridays.
The only reason I could imagine returning to the seafood chain is for another fluffy Cheddar Bay biscuit, a warm welcome currently celebrating its 25th anniversary and popular enough to be sold as a mix at Sam’s Club. Otherwise, everything I witnessed at a branch in Silver Spring, from the listless lone lobster in the fish tank to the one-note clam chowder and the corn on the cob that tasted as if it had been cooked in a dishwasher, made me wish I were just about anyplace else — anyplace else, that is, but TGI Fridays, where the dated striped decor competes with the hamburger (where’s the beef flavor?) in a blank bun to offend the senses. Like a lot of the competition, TGI Fridays has brushed up on food trends, although its supposedly “Thai” pulled pork tacos smack of canned tuna scrunched in tortillas made from plastic.
Speaking of plastic, here’s something chains can learn from independents: Paper menus don’t just feel better in a customer’s hands, they suggest more style and neatness. Just about every shiny chain menu I was handed felt sticky, none more so than the 200-plus-item-filled binder (available in large print and Braille, by the way) from the Cheesecake Factory.
As much as analysts, restaurant owners and critics talk about consumer interest in value, freshness and flavor, food isn’t always foremost on diners’ minds.
In a nationwide household survey conducted last year by the National Restaurant Association, 1,000 adults were asked what factors influenced their choice of where to eat away from home. “Recommendation from family member or friend,” responded 94 percent of households. Almost as important, 82 percent of the participants revealed: “Ease of parking at the restaurant.”