Chili’s focuses on drawing more families

The Brinker International holding is inviting mom, dad and the kids to literally get on the bus for stress-free dinners.
Photograph courtesy of Chili's Grill & Bar

A group of Detroit schoolchildren were introduced to targeted restaurant marketing Wednesday afternoon, though they might’ve been too preoccupied with that strange bus in the parking lot to notice. Who dressed it up to look like a Chili’s?  And why were mom and dad waving them on board after classes ended? Didn’t everyone need to get home for dinner?

Not that night. The youngsters were part of a stepped-up effort by Brinker International to win more visits from families, starting with an event trumpeting the message that Chili’s is a hassle-free place for parents to dine with their kids.

“One thing we’ve realized over the last year or so: At Chili’s, some of our highest-value guests are families, particularly families with young kids,” says Ellie Doty, who was promoted to CMO of the 1,610-unit chain Monday. “We know 42% of the traffic at Chili’s are groups with children in their party. It’s actually the highest in all of casual dining. It’s even higher than it is for Chick-fil-A.”

Yet, she says, “we were not taking care of families as much as we should,” particularly ones in which the mom and dad are millennials.

“Millennials became adults before they became parents. They’re interested in bringing their families to the places they knew as adults,” unlike their parents, who tended to look for something different and specifically kid-focused, the former Yum Brands executive continues. “That puts Chili’s in an interesting spot. We have a bar, we have margaritas, but we also have plenty of things for families. We offer a great value, we’re an environment where kids can be kids, and we have a menu with lots of craveable items that can be shared, which is super-important for families.”  

She seems to suggest the public needed a reminder.

Hence the bus. It was a standard-issue school bus the chain had tricked out with Chili’s trademark images, including oversized depictions of red Mexican peppers. That night, it would serve as a Chili’s Mobile.

The chain had reached out to select members of its loyalty program who had school-aged children. They were promised a stress-free night for the family, including an escape from the hassle of picking up the kids after school. The bus would handle that task, carting the families to a Chili’s for dinner.

The kids were treated to Chili’s-themed school supplies, and everyone was invited to indulge in their Chili’s favorites. Conversation starters (“Who is our spiciest family member?”) were provided to get the family members talking to one another.

The objective was to provide a stress-free occasion, says Doty—and maybe a reminder that Chili’s provides an escape for the whole family. Detroit was chosen because research indicated that families there have the highest level of stress in the nation: 82% are too harried to have dinner together regularly.

Doty says that Chili’s “gets a lot of share of wallet” from families, who tend to visit with a slightly higher frequency than other customer types. Moving those metrics in the right direction will be one of her top priorities, she adds.

“We’re working on some things around our kids offerings,” she says, without revealing details. Doty also mentioned that future outreaches to families might focus on delivery and takeout.

Chili’s isn’t the only casual-dining chain looking to win more business from families with the promise of providing a break. In July, Red Robin released research that shows families manage on average to snatch only 37 minutes of quality time together on any given day. The data also found that 70% of parents wish they spent more time with their kids, and 73% voiced a desire to log more interaction with mom and dad. A campaign launched by the sit-down burger chain this summer suggested Red Robin was the place to satisfy those yearnings.

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