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Restaurants now showing baby boomers some love

Be sure millennials and members of those pesky alphabet generations don’t see this, or their sniveling will kill the moment. God knows those twits have wrecked enough already, from the notion that only the winning team deserves a trophy to the idea that an employer decides what an employee should do. And clearly they snatched the restaurant spotlight away from us graybeards, the foundation for today’s restaurant industry.  

But your universe is shifting, Generations X, Y and Z. And it turns out we baby boomers are back on top.

Consider the new strategic directions that were set in recent weeks by two of the biggest contenders in casual dining—a segment that was created specifically for the boomer population bulge. 

Chili’s revealed last month that it’s turning back to its original source of popularity. Cauliflower and a host of other abominations to the Jell-O and fluffernutter generation are being lopped off the chain’s bloated menu to put the focus back on such yuppie favorites as burgers, margaritas, fajitas and ribs. By cutting the bill of fare by 40% and doing a better job of preparing what’s left, the chain is betting it can win back the people who remember when the Beatles were together.  

Meanwhile, Applebee’s is backtracking from a disastrous courtship of what President John Cywinski described as “a more youthful and affluent demographic, with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset … a clear pendulum swing toward millennials.” 

That group failed to put down their Frappuccinos and give Applebee’s much more than a try, if that. And they couldn’t stop texting long enough to notice such come-ons as turning the bar and grill into a tony steakhouse of sorts.  

Now it’s so done with those youngsters. The segment’s biggest player is turning its attention back to what Cywinski called “routine traditionalists,” or the generation that made casual dining the fast-casual sector of bygone decades. He was kind enough to forgo talk about sagging body parts and receding hairlines to characterize us as frequent diners with a thicker wallet and a preference for familiar menu choices. 

Hello, burgers, spinach dip and ribs! Might we even see Applebee’s bring back its signature brand of ribs, the bite-sized sort known as Riblets?

Of course, we couldn’t help but notice that both chains are betting on similar lures for the boomer crowd. And some of those draws are the same bait being dangled by rivals like Ruby Tuesday and TGI Fridays in their rejuvenation efforts. 

One of casual dining’s problems has been the sameness of the major players’ menus. Will that problem be accentuated instead of allayed by a boomer-centric push? If so, the result will likely be a price war, and casual has never fared well when discounting becomes the traffic driver. A $20 dinner for two has become the sector’s version of a dollar menu, with similarly profit-destroying results.

At least casual dining is trying to keep its heart beating. Some naysayers say it’s doomed because its core clientele is thinning. 

Yeah, right—as if we baby boomers are really going to die out someday. 

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