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Casual-dining chains look for lures to fill their dining rooms

Bucking the off-premise trend, casual-dining stalwarts dream up incentives to get diners inside.
molten chocolate cake
Photograph courtesy of Chili's

Chili’s Grill & Bar isn’t pushing baby back ribs or half-pound burgers in a recent multipronged ad campaign.

Rather, in radio spots, TV ads and social media posts, the casual-dining chain is shilling the mere experience of dining at Chili’s. The sound of sizzling fajitas and shaken margaritas. A happy family, cozy around a table in a busy dining room. High-energy music. Smiling servers.

Or, as Chili’s puts it in its marketing materials: “What do our guests love most about Chili's Grill & Bar? The sh-sh-sh-shake of our margaritas? The sizzle of our fajitas? The chocolate that oozes from our moltens as a spoon digs in? The laugh-so-hard-you-pee-a-little conversations at the table? You guessed it ... it's all of these unique moments that make eating at Chili's so … Chili's.”

Sure, off-premise may be getting all the buzz, with third-party delivery services and chains fighting for a share of the pie and restaurants shrinking dining rooms to make way for bigger kitchens with extra makelines. Big brands are eyeing delivery-only kitchens, and consumers are becoming increasingly hooked on ordering anything, at any time, from their living rooms.

But there are still thousands of casual-dining restaurants around the country who need to fill their dining rooms with guests to grow sales. Off-premise alone isn’t providing these players with the magical boost they need: The casual-dining segment grew just 1.1% in 2018, according to Technomic Top 500 data.

Despite the ease and prevalence of off-premise, sometimes consumers still want to order and eat a meal inside an actual restaurant. They just might require a bit of extra coaxing to get there.

Emphasizing value and service

To that end, Chili’s experience-focused campaign gets a boost from a value-added offer: the addition of shrimp or chicken to the chain’s 3 for $10 lunch menu. And Darden-owned Olive Garden is hoping to reel in on-site diners with a $5 take-home pasta deal with the purchase of a dine-in entree.

Meanwhile, the chain is also focusing on training and staffing to improve the experience inside its restaurants, CEO Gene Lee said during Darden’s Q2 2020 earnings call with analysts.

“This is an important time that we focus on running great restaurants,” Lee said. “And staffing is the most critical thing that we face today in this employment environment. … I think we win if we have the best people inside the box.”

At BJ’s Restaurants, a line of $6 heat-and-eat take-home entrees introduced in November is boosting the bottom line, executives said, contributing a 0.4% same-store sales boost in the last quarter of 2019. The chilled meals are becoming some of the casual-dining chain’s most popular items, with CEO Greg Trojan telling financial analysts that their sales are “nearly 100% incremental.”

TGI Fridays, which has been in the bar business for more than half a century, announced plans to revamp its bars to suit a new generation, adding communal tables, electronic charging stations and enhanced Wi-Fi.

“When you ask folks to tell you a story about TGI Fridays, they're always bar stories: ‘I hung out with my buddies in college or I met my wife at a TGI Fridays,’” CEO Ray Blanchette told analysts. “In the last five years or so, though, the bar has been deemphasized in TGI Fridays. I think our bar is a major differentiator versus our core competition, and we believe it can be better leveraged.”

Barcelona Wine Bar remodeled its bars, in part to make sure that bartenders could make better eye contact with patrons.

“We’re selling an experience,” CEO Adam Halberg said at an investment conference early this year. “There are a lot of people who come to Barcelona who seek out new experiences.”

Eatertainment evolves

Even eatertainment chains, whose main selling point is the on-premise experience, are needing to constantly innovate to attract diners.

Dave & Buster’s, which continues to battle falling traffic, introduced virtual reality games in 2018, and adds new titles each quarter.

Punch Bowl Social is adding a $25-an-hour proprietary dart attraction, golf game and classes on a wide range of topics, all to entice eaters and drinkers to come through their doors.

And U.K.-based darts concept Flight Club, which is adding U.S. units, uses vision-tracking tech developed by NASA to enhance its darts experience.

“We’re really providing a curated experience,” says Alan Cichon, president of Flight Club US. “That’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for that experiential piece.”


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