Customers at this Olive Garden in Falls Church and at dozens of Olive Gardens… (Matt McClain/The Washington…)
An earlier version of the story incorrectly referred to TGI Fridays as TGI’s. This version has been corrected.
After introducing himself, a server asks companions and me if we’d like a gratis taste of the wine the Italian restaurant is highlighting tonight. We nod, and a splash of red is poured into the stemware pre-set on the table. Moments later, a basket of piping hot breadsticks, bundled in linen, follows.
If nothing else, Olive Garden makes a hospitable impression with free wine and warm bread.
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.