Although the casual-dining segment saw a tiny bump in sales growth recently—increasing 0.4% year over year, according to Technomic’s 2018 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report—many of these chains are still struggling. One of the problems, industry analysts agree, is sameness across the segment. Copycat menus and experiences are a turnoff for today’s consumers, especially younger diners.
But some casual-dining brands are setting themselves apart, offering points of differentiation that boost appeal. Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics survey reveals that guests are drawn to chains that offer menu variety and unique items that aren’t served in competing restaurants. These are the casual-dining chains that consumers rated high for uniqueness, in no particular order.
More than 58% of consumers favor Mellow Mushroom for its menu variety, with 53% saying that the chain offers “unique items I can only get here.” One respondent adds: “There is a pizza on the menu that only they serve. It has five varieties of mushrooms on it. … I have never seen this pizza option anywhere else.” The calzones also get high marks for uniqueness, with one consumer saying, “They are different than anywhere else. I love them.”
Joe’s Crab Shack
This seafood concept also earns praise for its differentiation, with close to 62% of consumers singling it out for menu variety and more than 55% saying Joe’s offers unique menu items. Survey respondents especially enjoy the crab buckets, with a majority calling out this item as a differentiator and “a favorite.” The atmosphere at Joe’s Crab Shack is also a selling point, according to the survey.
BJ’s Restaurants & Brewhouse
BJ’s has recently invested in menu development, and the results are resonating with consumers. The chain’s new Enlightened Entrees focus on flavorful, better-for-you dishes, while its installation of special equipment to introduce a slow-roasted meats menu is proving to be a differentiator. Over 60% of consumers give BJ’s menu points for variety, and the brand posted a 4.2% rise in comp sales in the first quarter of 2018.
Seasons 52 is on the high end of casual dining—a subsegment that is doing better, according to Technomic’s Top 500 report. More than half of consumers like this brand for the unique items offered on its menu, while close to 58% cite menu variety as a differentiator. A number of respondents zeroed in on Seasons 52’s unique appetizers, particularly the duck lollipops and lobster flatbread. Others commented on the kitchen’s focus on seasonal menu items, ability to play with different flavors and attention to healthy portion sizes. One respondent sums up the brand’s appeal: “I could point to about 20 [unique] items on the last menu.”
Cheesecake’s large and varied menu is legendary—a characteristic that’s reflected in consumer responses. Almost 66% of those surveyed pointed to the chain’s menu variety as a draw. In fact, Cheesecake Factory’s sales growth trumps the casual-dining segment as a whole, according to Technomic figures. Comp sales are up 2.1%, per the chain’s most recent earnings call. Like BJ’s, Cheesecake Factory is paying more attention to lighter menu items and dishes with superfood ingredients without abandoning fan favorites.
A menu of made-from-scratch Caribbean cuisine is a point of differentiation for Bahama Breeze. The concept’s uniqueness scores high with over 55% of consumers, and almost 60% are attracted to the menu variety. Small plates showcasing island flavors and a drinks list featuring tropical cocktails set Bahama Breeze apart.