At a time when all eyes seem to be on breakfast, the daypart entrusted to bring McDonald’s sales back from the dead, lunch visits have also been rising steadily, to less fanfare and perhaps undeservedly so.
“Lunch is the engine (of foodservice) and if it’s not driving the global foodservice industry, you can’t say it’s a healthy industry,” says Bob O’Brien, global foodservice analyst for research company NPD Group.
A piece of further encouragement, U.S. restaurant visits reached a six-year high during the year ended May 2015, according to NPD research, indicating a revving foodservice engine and an industry on the mend.
Lunch’s comeback is largely due to an expanding workforce, says Warren Solochek, vice president of client development for NPD Group, as those who spend their days outside the home are more likely to buy lunch out.
While overall employment levels have increased, wages in many industries have flattened, which has been a boon to fast casuals, he adds, thanks to their promise of better food at better-for-the-bank-account prices.
Perceived value can be even more important than actual value for those watching their wallets, Solochek says, and fast casuals certainly deliver in that arena—offering exciting menu items, easy meal customization, an appearance of “freshness” and a range of apps and other technologies that streamline the ordering and dining experience, thus upping consumers’ perception of quality.
“The average check for fast casual tends to be higher than QSR, but people are willing to pay more,” Solochek says.
Casual-dining chains like Applebee’s and Chili’s have taken note, he adds, and in an effort to grow their lunch business are looking to fast-casual concepts for ways to speed up service and offer guests more on-the-go options.
Buffalo Wild Wings took a cue from fast casual with the April launch of its Fast Break lunch menu, which allows customers to build their own their meals from a pre-set selection of menu items such as wings, wraps, burgers, salads and sides. This condensed menu aims to reduce the speed of lunch service, allowing guests to place and eat their custom orders in 30 to 40 minutes.
“We’re seeing (casual restaurants) offering more handheld foods such as burgers, sandwiches and soups,” which customers like because they can spend less money and can get in and out more quickly,” Solochek says. “And we’re seeing a lot of promos focused on the lunch daypart.”