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.