The leading casual-dining chains’ sales struggles are an ongoing discussion, but there are still some ways the full-service segment is winning consumers’ dollars. Technomic’s new Future of FSR: Family & Casual Dining Consumer Trend Report reveals that consumers are increasingly using casual-dining chains in nontraditional ways, outside of dine-in lunch and dinner occasions.
Here are five ways casual-dining concepts are growing business right now, according to the report.
Brunch wakes up
Brunch patronage has increased at both midmarket and upscale casual-dining restaurants from 2014, driven largely by younger consumers. In this study, brunch is defined as a late breakfast eaten after 10 a.m. The report notes that part of the appeal of full-service brunch is the adult beverage options, such as mimosas and bloody marys. Brunch also tends to be a more affordable and casual dine-in occasion than dinner.
TGI Fridays is one large casual chain that has started experimenting with brunch. The chain’s new prototype in Corpus Christi, Texas, began offering a weekend Hangover Brunch menu this spring, with items like meat-skewered bloody marys, chicken and waffles, and bourbon steak and eggs.
Consumers are increasingly likely to visit traditional casual-dining restaurants for late-night dining occasions after 10 p.m. compared to two years ago. They are eating and drinking with their adult friends during these visits: 40% of consumers’ recent late-night snacking occasions at full-service restaurants were with friends, compared to an average of 21% for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Similar to brunch, the uptick in late-night dining is driven by younger consumers as well.
These consumers are also drawn in by a lively ambiance late at night, which is becoming more important at casual-dining chains in general. Michigan-based Hofbrauhaus, for example, is open well after midnight on the weekends, and provides diners with an atmosphere of live music, singing and table dancing in its traditional German-style beer halls.
Consumers are more likely to order catering from casual-dining restaurants now than they were in 2014. Nearly a quarter of consumers now say they would be likely to order catering from upscale (23%) and traditional (22%) casual-dining restaurants. Moreover, 36% of full-service restaurant operators surveyed that offer catering programs say catering had a large impact on growing their sales in the past year.
Operators already know that takeout sells at limited-service chains, but Technomic data shows that to-go options are also fueling off-premise occasions at traditional and upscale casual chains compared to two years ago. The easier takeout becomes—with better packaging; mobile, online and call-ahead ordering options; and curbside pickup and delivery—the more consumers are subscribing to it. Busy balancers, characterized by highly mobile, foodservice-reliant millennial parents, are particularly likely to say the availability of takeout service is important at casual-dining concepts, and they also tend to dine with young children more than others do at these restaurants.
A few casual chains, including Olive Garden and Carrabba’s Italian Grill, are appealing to families with new takeout options. Carrabba’s introduced Family Bundles to feed four people on the carryout menu in May, and Olive Garden added a limited-time takeout Family Style Lasagna Bundle for eight people in August.
Delivery only accounts for about 7% to 8% of orders at casual-dining chains, but consumers say they are now using it more often at both traditional and upscale casual restaurants than they were in 2014. The biggest traditional dining chains are starting to consider and test delivery to keep up with changing behaviors, including Buffalo Wild Wings, The Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s and Chili’s. Additionally, Olive Garden met consumer demand for both catering and delivery by launching delivery service for catering packages $125 and up earlier this year.
Consumers’ increased patronage of casual-dining chains for brunch, late-night and off-premise occasions will spur operators to start testing these programs—if they don’t already. To maximize profits, operators will likely target marketing campaigns at the demographics who use each program the most, such as busy balancers for takeout, and younger consumers for brunch and late-night dining.