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3 sleeper trends restaurateurs shouldn’t miss

Here's what's simmering while the industry is busy summering.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Quick: What was the last problem dropped on you yesterday, and what looming catastrophe kicked off today? 

Restaurateurs often complain their days are spent lurching from one potential crisis to another, leaving little time to observe and digest what’s happening in the industry as a whole. Trends unfolding outside their four walls often go unnoticed until the resulting problem or opportunity has pushed its way inside.

We got your back, bunky. Here are three of those sleeper currents that merit a moment of consideration, even if the sink is clogged, the dishwasher didn’t show and a tour bus just pulled up outside. 

Dinner is the challenge of the moment

Restaurants, or at least those of the chain variety, are continuing to see too few dining room seats being filled. But at least they’ve diagnosed the problem more precisely. Particularly for casual-dining operations, which have spent years trying to scrounge up any lunch business, the new challenge is drawing dine-in customers for dinner.

While same-store traffic for chain restaurants was down 2.8% overall from January through July, transactions fell on a comparable basis by 3.6% at dinner, according to Black Box Intelligence. 

Applebee’s blamed its second quarter slide in same-store sales squarely on a drop-off at night. The issue, it said, was turning off bargain hunters, who make up about 20% of the casual giant’s customer base. “I believe our May-June performance could have been stronger had we introduced our new Loaded Fajitas with a compelling nationally advertised price point,” said President John Cywinski, referring to the $10.99 platter that was offered late in the quarter. “Bottom line, when we're aggressive on price, value seekers tend to be with us, and when we're not, they tend to seek a deal elsewhere.”

Applebee’s is now touting the first in a new line of hand-formed burgers, priced at $7.99 and served with unlimited fries.

Other casual chains are similarly touting new bargains. Chili’s Grill & Bar crowed about getting away from discounting, but it’s currently spotlighting the offer of a soft drink, appetizer and entree for $10 total, and plans to keep touting the bargain for some time to come. 

Casual chains aren’t the only operations searching for ways to pull more guests in the evenings. The Freshii fast-casual brand is testing the dinnertime staples of roasted chicken breasts, turkey meatballs and vegetarian protein entrees at 30 stores, while simultaneously commencing a sales trial of plated meals. 

Gee, that new menu item sounds familiar …

Grandpa used to say, “Everything old will be new again.” But he was old, cranky and going senile, so no one paid attention. Except, it seems, the menu planners rolling out promotional items for the second half of summer ’19. Turns out the novelty sought with grabbers such as faux meats and hard seltzers has given way to a reliance on nostalgia. Look at the menu draws being touted this month and you’ll see a bunch of geezers packaged up to sound new and desirable again. 

Wendy’s is pushing spicy chicken nuggets again. Chick-fil-A said it was prompted by customer demand to resurrect its Smokehouse BBQ Bacon Sandwich and Strawberry Passion Tea Lemonade, while simultaneously introducing an actual new product, mac and cheese. Hardee’s brought back its kids meals, White Castle is pushing Chicken Rings again and Buffalo Wild Wings has resumed offering two-for-one wings on Tuesday nights. 

And we’re just getting into the pumpkin spice coffee season.

Merchandise sales are back, and apparently XL 

It’s apparently cool again to wear garb sporting the logos of restaurant chains, or at least the right restaurant chains. Why else would it be mainstream news that Taco Bell has revealed its new back-to-school clothing line? Now available in the Taco Shop, the quick-service chain’s online merchandise mart, are a branded hoodie, T-shirt and backpack. The line has been extended to include a flash drive that looks like a packet of hot sauce; memo pads; and pencils patterned after the sauce packets. 

The Yum Brands holding isn’t the only restaurant chain that has found logoed merchandise to be a source of new revenues. A new array of “beer gear”—clothing for suds aficionados—proved a pleasant surprise for Granite City Food & Brewery. Meanwhile, any gathering of Los Angelenos shows how the love of In-N-Out translates into sales of the cult favorite's T-shirts. Clothing studded with the chain's logo is almost as prevalent as duds celebrating the Dodgers. 

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