I’ve been told that there’s a feeling that persons of my vintage—the millennials—would rather be spotted rocking a North Face fanny pack than be seen in a Chili’s or Olive Garden. And it’s something I can’t personally deny; it’s rare that I’ll set foot in the big casual-dining chains (and if I do, I pray that no one I know sees me). To see if I was alone in this feeling, I pooled the other millennials in my pod at work. The feeling is mutual—these brands just aren’t winning us over.
But why the disdain? “There is zero benefit,” said my co-worker. You don’t feel good after eating at one of these chains, she said, referring to her post-dining experience as an MSG coma. If she can pay a few dollars more for something a little better, she will, she said.
“It’s the opposite of experiential dining,” said another. And she added that they don’t seem to be giving back to the community (other than giving high school kids job experience).
So have operators lost my generation to fast casuals and local indies? Is there no path to win us back? Well, if they don’t change their ways, then no—there’s no way to get us in the door. But here are a few areas these operators may want to consider.
Is it time to refresh...or even rebrand?
When I asked the same co-workers if there was anything that would get them in the doors, the first response was, “Look at Holler & Dash.” While she wouldn’t ever go to a Cracker Barrel, the new brand backed by the legacy chain is right up the millennial alley—it’s a focused, on-trend menu of biscuit sandwiches (touted via food porn) in a laid-back, cool environment. The same can be said for build-your-own concept Pie Five Pizza (which I went to earlier this week). While there’s no way I’d set foot in a Pizza Inn, its new fast-casual brand is great. It’s fast, customizable and feels a little fresher…even for pizza. I get why Rave, the parent company, shifted efforts to the fast casual as its growth vehicle.
But if a concept isn’t ready to abandon its mainstay brand, can a new approach work? Fridays recently launched a new prototype to target millennials and build its lunch traffic. The jury’s still out on whether it will give millennials a new reason to consider the brand, but I’ll admit, I think the grab-and-go area was a smart add that I’d consider hitting up in a pinch. But again, I wouldn’t really want to be seen running into a Fridays. So are these legacy brands too far gone? How could they win me over one more time to get me in the door to see the difference? Enter a really strong marketing team that is willing to abandon traditional discounting.
Value as a balancing act
What’s the best way to get millennials in the door of these chains they’re shying away from? “At a certain value point, like an insane appetizer deal at Fridays, you can start to draw in the student crowd,” said a co-worker. And it’s not just the younger school kids won over by a good deal. Point in case: The millennials in my pod, the same ones who’ve said they are anti-big casual brands, always are up for going to a chain to get free (or super cheap) food.
But the traditional two-for-$20 deals feel stale. And the bottomless food mostly appeals to the younger males. So what exactly goes into the discounting draw?
We’re not marketing experts, but here’s what another millennial co-worker and I came up with: Make it a challenge. In a direct marketing campaign, likely via snail mail (because most millennials aren’t on these chains’ email lists—and if they are, they delete before opening), call out the fact that these diners likely haven’t been in one of your restaurants in two-plus years. But ask them to give your brand one more shot, the chance to prove them wrong—and offer some kind of freebie to make it appealing.
I know restaurants want to move away from discounting and couponing, but it might just be the Hail Mary, when clever and well-executed, that could get millennials to even think about or consider a brand they’ve always dismissed.
Can technology actually help?
Can apps really ever work for casual dining? This is something many operators brought up during the Restaurant Leadership Conference last month—what can casual-dining operators do to make the millennial crowd download their app? What value can it add?
Outback has taken some good steps with its new app. The ability to check the wait time at all local stores, put yourself on the waitlist, monitor your table’s status and text the location to dining buddies all from within the app is great. And if I were a frequent Outback diner, I probably would have this app. But I’m not—nor do I hit other casual-dining chains too often. And therein lies the issue.
Don’t automatically assume tabletop tech is the way to go to up the frictionless service for the millennials who do frequent your restaurants—knowing that it’s an easier sell than taking up smartphone real estate. Maybe instead focus on getting us back in the stores before spending the big bucks on tech you think we might like.
This week's head-spinning restaurant moments included a suggestion in court that the "b" in IHOb stood for "bad news for Applebee's." That's just one of the long-shot gambles that came to light as oddsmakers considered the likelihood of restaurants charging into sports betting and who'll win the chain vs. independent bout.