Afternoons emerge as the new restaurant battleground

Restaurants’ battle for the hearts and wallets of consumers is shifting to later in the day, with chains talking about the potential of the afternoon the way brands were gushing about breakfast opportunities two years ago.

Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and Chili’s parent Brinker International have all revealed plans in recent weeks to intensify their focus on the p.m. daypart, an acknowledged weakness at present.

Dunkin’ and Starbucks say they intend to bolster beverage and food sales during midafternoon snack time by adapting what’s worked for them at breakfast.

Chili’s focus will be on lunch, where the grill and bar concept intends to incorporate the strategies that boosted its Thursday-through-Sunday dinner business at the end of 2017.

For Starbucks, the catalyst will be the chain’s order-and-pay-ahead capability, where patrons can order a coffee via app and zip inside a unit to grab it without a wait. The goal is to coax a few more orders in the afternoon from what CEO Kevin Johnson calls the occasional Starbucks customer.

“Just like we figured out and cracked the code in the morning daypart, we will do the same thing in the afternoon,” Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz vowed to analysts during a recent conference call.

Johnson said that new beverages, including Starbucks’ new Blonde blend, will also be a key part of the strategy. He noted the afternoon drawing power of cold beverages in particular. Chilled drinks currently generate 40% of Starbucks’ beverage sales and half its sales growth, according to Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer.

Part of Dunkin’s strategy calls for focusing more intently on what the chain describes as afternoon sandwiches, while dramatically cutting its roster of baked goods. Dunkin’ USA President Dave Hoffmann said “afternoon-focused beverages” will also be part of the thrust.

“With our new simplified menu slated to be rolled out nationally by the end of March, we can now shift our focus to developing revamped, easier-to-execute afternoon offerings that will reinvigorate our p.m. business and build off of our morning success,” Hoffmann said during Dunkin’s quarterly call with analysts.

“Just as we've had success in the morning daypart, we need to extend that success into the p.m. in 2018,” he said.

The chain is currently in the middle of a “happy hour program that's performing well in the afternoon,” said Hoffmann, without revealing details. He noted that Dunkin’ has conducted extensive research on what positioning resonates with customers in the afternoon. Similar research guided the chain’s successful focus on breakfast last year, he added.

Chili’s is poised to mount a new lunch push this quarter, patterned after the chain’s successful efforts to bolster dinner business, Brinker CEO Wyman Roberts revealed last week.

“We know we can better meet the challenging needs of today's lunch users, so we've developed new food and operational enhancements to deliver more compelling value,” he said, declining to reveal additional details.

In addition, “we are now pivoting to a lunch-specific messaging around the same strategy,” Roberts added, referring to the efforts that began last fall to bolster dinner business.

The nighttime strategy plays off Chili’s removal of 75 items from the menu, a 40% reduction. The focus intensified on burgers, fajitas and ribs, which Chili’s revamped with a promise that the new versions are heftier and of better quality. Traffic on Thursday through Sunday nights has increased 5% because of those moves, according to CFO Joe Taylor.

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