The casual-dining segment’s lagging sales are no secret. Upscale casual dining is the exception to this rule, and most of America’s favorite casual-dining concepts are upscale or boast a specialized cuisine—only one is a traditional varied-menu concept. These winning chains are offering seasonal menus, scratch-made fare and competitive bar programs.
1. The Capital Grille
Some may expect a high-end chain to outrank its casual counterpart in all cases, but this is the first time one has taken the top spot among casual and upscale chains in Restaurant Business’s annual brand ranking. This fine-dining favorite stakes its reputation on its adult beverage program, and spent the last year making wine-centered developments, from its new Virtual Concierge app to #WineSpeak Twitter parties with its sommelier.
The Capital Grille positions is positioned as a destination for special occasions and celebrations. Not wanting to limit itself, though, the chain targets value needs outside of dinner with lunch and bar menus.
Parent: Darden Restaurants Inc.
HQ: Orlando, Fla.
2. Seasons 52
Seasons 52 continues to appeal to health-conscious diners with its rotating seasonal menus that stick to an under-500 calorie count. It launched a Sunday brunch menu this year as well as tested a ride-sharing service to transport customers to brunch in select markets. “Through cautious growth, Seasons 52 has continued to maintain high demand with both affluent and middle income groups,” says Darren Tristano.
3. Maggiano’s Little Italy
Constantly refreshing its menu mix, Maggiano’s added several seasonal menu items this year. In addition to LTOs, new permanent items such as angel hair vegetable primavera and five types of bruschetta played to the veggie-forward trend.
Chuy’s has been growing rapidly, with unit count up 18.6% this year, making it familiar with a wider audience. The Mexican concept added several new seasonal LTO margaritas throughout the year and brought back its popular Hatch green chile menu when the ingredient was in season.
5. Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen
Newcomer to the top five this year, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen spent the year in expansion mode. It increased U.S. units 7% year over year. As the number of restaurants grew, so too did the menu, with several new menu items this year such as barbecue chicken, barbecue ribs, a 20-ounce bone-in rib-eye, a salmon salad and blackened redfish with crab sauce.
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.