Despite a long list of failed experiments, full-service restaurants are continuing to veer outside their troubled market to recapture patrons who’ve found fast-casual concepts more in sync with their tastes and lifestyles. The sit-down brands are embracing new vehicles for getting into limited service, sometimes of their own invention, and other times by latching onto upstarts that show promise.
Here’s a rundown of table-service specialists that intend to give fast casual a try.
Buffalo Wild Wings
Venture: As yet unnamed
The wings, beer and sports specialist seemed to be the immune from the problems afflicting the casual-dining market, but now those sales and traffic challenges have hit with a wallop. Not the least of its issues is competition for off-premise wing sales from limited-service concepts like WingStop, Domino’s and Pizza Hut. It’s reacting with plans to test several scaled-down formats, including a delivery-and-takeout-only riff, as well as a barebones branded kitchen that solely offers delivery. Part of the rationale, says management, is developing a less-expensive restaurant design that’s small enough to fit in markets that lack a sufficient customer base for a full-sized BWW.
Meanwhile, the franchisor is maintaining its two other fast-casual experiments, despite the contention of shareholders that it should focus on the wings business. The company has a minority stake in PizzaRev and currently operates two stores, with no plans to expand that holding at present. It owns a controlling interest in R Tacos, a Tex-Mex concept, and intends to open two company stores while franchising at least a dozen outlets.
The definition of fast-casual is being stretched by the breastaurant chain’s smaller-sized spin-off. The prototype features a full bar, complete with 20 seats, and seating for 55 more people in the general dining area, giving it a larger footprint than many limited-service concepts boast. The service is also a departure. Guests can either place their order at a counter and have the food brought to their tables, or sit at a table first and have a server take their order.
Despite the multiple dine-in options, there’s an expectation of high takeout and catering sales, which already top 20% at Hooter’s units. The menu pares down Hooter’s usual bill of fare to just a few main items: boneless and bone-in wings; snowcrab legs; Buffalo-spiced shrimp; two chicken sandwiches (Buffalo and grilled); and a salad.
One of the more remarkable features is a service staff that includes men as well as women, a departure from the Hooter’s formula.
The Cheesecake Factory
Venture: Flower Child
After trying and then phasing out a variation called The Cheesecake Factory Express roughly a decade ago, the high-volume casual concept is poking a fork back into the limited-service sector through a deal with Fox Restaurant Concepts, the multi-concept operation in Scottsdale, Ariz. Cheesecake has purchased an undisclosed, minority stake in Fox’s Flower Child fast-casual concept, with the intention of funding expansion beyond the six branches that are currently open. If Cheesecake likes the concept and its expansion potential, it can exercise an option to buy Flower Child outright.
Flower Child features foods that would delight any hippie—healthful bowls, wraps and salads made with unprocessed, wholesome ingredients, including grains and organic components. Checks average around $17, according to Fox, which would put the concept at the high range of fast casual.
Venture: Holler & Dash Biscuit House
A second stab at limited-service seems to hold more promise for Cracker Barrel, which tried a takeout dinner concept called Cracker Barrel Corner Market in the 1990s. The current entrant specializes in biscuit-based sandwiches, along with such southern favorites as grits, beignets and pickled vegetables. Holler & Dash has already grown to four stores in a year, with two more slated to open by August.
Management has declined to reveal any financial results for the new concept, saying it needs more of a track record. Yet it’s continuing to build stores—a point it never reached with Cracker Barrel Corner Market.
Venture: The Den
The largest fast-casual spin-off of a full-service concept may this little-known entrant from the home of the Grand Slam. That’s because all 17 current branches are sandwiched inside non-traditional sites—16 colleges and one military base. Denny’s, a largely franchised system, has focused on those alternative sites instead of risking encroachment on other operator’s turf.
The Den is positioned as being hipper than its older sister, though “proudly old-schooley”—“a place with a vibe” and definitely not “your dad’s diner,” Denny’s says on The Den’s webpage. The menu features signature Denny’s breakfasts like The Original Grand Slam, available all day, along with burgers, burritos, sandwiches, “munchies” like chicken strips and onion rings, and fountain drinks made with hand-dipped ice cream.
Venture: As yet unnamed
The burger chain decided that its first fast-casual riff, Red Robin Burger Works, wasn’t cutting the mustard, so it closed nine of the 12 outlets in October and reflagged the other three as Red Robin Expresses. But the full-service mother ship says it intends to try other scaled-down formats focused on takeout and delivery—or perhaps even limited to those forms of service. CEO Denny Post told Restaurant Business that she finds so-called headless restaurants--places that have a kitchen but no dining space or takeout counter--to be very interesting.
Legal Sea Foods
Venture: Legal Fish Bowl
Aimed specifically at time-pressed office workers on their lunch hour, this new one from the Boston-based upscale seafood chain offers bowl meals priced from $10 to $15. One of the twists: The choices will include composed meals as well as customized ones, a variation on the usual fast-casual model of offering everything made to order.
Hurricane Grill and Wings
Venture: Hurricane BTW
The “BTW” in the name refers to the upstart’s menu signatures: Burgers, tacos and wings. Along with pizza, the three are the most popular selections on a full-service Hurricane’s bill of fare. Other options include chicken fingers, salad, beer and milkshakes. Checks are expected to average about $10.
The prototype is set to open next month in Skokie, Ill., just outside Chicago.