For years, casual restaurants such as Olive Garden and Buffalo Wild Wings have been battling for your dinnertime dollars, to be the place where you take the kids for a heaping bowl of spaghetti on their birthday or where you slurp beers with your buddies on game night.
But now these sit-down restaurant chains are hungry for your lunch order, too.
Olive Garden is trying to draw a bigger lunchtime crowd by changing up its signature lunch menu offering—a soup, salad and breadsticks meal—with trendy combo options such as risotto balls or parmesan-roasted asparagus.
Red Robin, a full-service burger chain with 500 restaurants, is racing to open outposts of its fast-casual spin-off, Burger Works, in urban locations with big lunchtime crowds. Cracker Barrel is developing a fast-casual concept that will likely debut by July 2016, while Romano’s Macaroni Grill is promising guests that orders from its new takeaway lunch counter will be filled in seven minutes or the meal is free.
The industry is struggling to turnaround years of decline as time-strapped customers opt for fast-casual joints such as Chipotle and Panera Bread and remain wary of an outing that feels like an indulgence.
According to research firm Technomic, sales were up just 1.9 percent at casual dining restaurants open more than a year in the third quarter, compared to a 7.9 percent increase in the fast-casual category and a 2 percent increase in the restaurant industry overall.
“The worst place to be in the restaurant industry in the United States today is to be a full-service restaurant with average check size of less than $20,” said Aaron Allen, a restaurant industry consultant.
That’s because diners have been flocking to fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle where they can get meals that are similar in price and quality to those at casual dining chains, but can get in and out of the restaurant much faster. Wall Street has noted diners’ enthusiasm: Chains such as Shake Shack, Zoe’s Kitchen and El Pollo Loco saw their stock sizzle in recent public trading debuts. Chipotle, the shining star of the fast-casual category, has seen its stock soar nearly 600 percent in the last five years as it has repeatedly delivered stratospheric growth in sales at restaurants open more than a year.
Fast-casual restaurants have taken advantage of one of the weaknesses of their sit-down dining counterparts.
“I might say fast-casual exists because full-service doesn’t align very well with lunch during the week,” said Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst with Technomic. “Monday through Friday, getting out of a full-service restaurant in under an hour is difficult.”
Now, sit-down chains are looking for new ways to adapt to that problem.
Currently, only 20 percent of Buffalo Wild Wings’ business comes during the lunch-time rush. The chain will try to change that with a marketing blitz starting in April that will trumpet quick-to-prepare menu items such as wings, salads, sandwiches, and “Buffalitos,” a taco-like concoction. It will also work to train the kitchen staff to move speedily.
Hopefully, diners will be impressed if they are moved through the restaurant in 30 to 40 minutes, said Sally Smith, chief executive of Buffalo Wild Wings.
“Lunch is really where we have opportunity and availability at our restaurants,” said Smith. “We’re not at capacity for lunch.”
Red Robin, too, is keenly aware of how much time is a factor in winning lunch business.
Steve Carley, the gourmet burger chain’s chief executive, said: “In our research, we’ve found that guests typically have the following conversation: They look at their pals for lunch and say, ‘What do you want to do for lunch?’ And the next question is, ‘Well, how much time do we have?’”
If it was less than 25 minutes — as it often is for desk jockeys — diners don’t even consider full-service restaurants like Red Robin.
“Being held hostage by the check, we know that’s a big pain point for guests,” Carley said. “And fast-casual solves that problem.”
That’s where Burger Works comes in. The restaurants are smaller than traditional Red Robin restaurants and feature only a selection from the restaurant’s extensive menu. So far, Burger Works have opened in Denver, Chicago and the District, and Carley expects he will look to add more urban markets in the future.
Red Robin is trying to address the speed issue in its big-box restaurants with tabletop tablet computers that allow customers to pay instantly without having to wait for a server’s assistance.
Digital technology is also central to Olive Garden’s strategy for luring a bigger lunch time crowd. The Italian restaurant’s to-go sales in the most recent quarter were up 15 percent over the previous year, strong growth that the company attributes to the launch of its online ordering platform in July and mobile ordering capability in November.
The push by casual dining restaurants to steal lunch money from their fast-casual rivals is hardly a sure thing. Red Lobster, for example, tried a fast-casual concept called Seaside Express back in 2013 but ultimately discontinued the effort, likely a sign that it wasn’t gaining traction.
Fast-food restaurants, which are also under siege from the fast-casual category, have tried to experiment with more upscale items, such as when Taco Bell added its Cantina Bell menu to better compete with Chipotle. They soon reworked that offering to become the Cantina Power menu, which focuses on protein-heavy dishes, a move that suggests that cribbing directly from Chipotle’s playbook wasn’t a success for them.
And, Allen warns, innovation simply does not seem to be in the DNA of many of the casual dining chains, which often feel dated the moment you set foot in the door.
“It’s kind of state of the art, 1993,” Allen said.