There are some restaurant experiences that cannot easily be replicated at home, despite the industry’s laser-like focus on takeout and delivery. Perhaps that explains why polished-casual chains—those upscale-casual concepts where the drinks are just as important as the food—are some of the fastest growing brands within the casual-dining segment, according to Technomic’s Top 500 report.
While many traditional and family-dining concepts struggled to gain momentum, these higher-end players posted some enviable numbers. Polished casuals also may be picking up dining dollars as some consumers, particularly millennials, steer toward indies and away from chains.
Polished-casual chains frequently feature indie-like decor and localized menu options. Consumers rated local and independent restaurants significantly higher than national chains in every food-related attribute in a recent Technomic survey.
“Polished-casual chains, especially those with strong adult beverage programs, continue to stand out as growth leaders within the full-service segment,” says Kevin Schimpf, Technomic’s manager of industry research. “In addition to retaining an atmosphere that is similar to a local independent restaurant, these chains are exceling at tapping into strong consumer interest in craft beer and cocktails.”
The casual-dining chain with the most impressive jump in sales in 2018 was Massachusetts-based 110 Grill (No. 499). The 18-unit concept saw sales rise a whopping 77.3% over 2017’s numbers, with total sales of nearly $49 million in 2018, making it large enough to join the Top 500 ranking for the first time. The chain is known, in part, for tailoring its menu to suit diners with restricted diets, with all of its core lunch and dinner items available in gluten-free variations. 110 Grill locations feature open kitchens and large, horseshoe-shaped bars, which add to the in-unit experience and encourage customers to order a craft beer or cocktail—or two.
Other polished-casual chains that performed well in 2018 include:
- Fox Restaurant Concepts’ North Italia (No. 406), partially funded by a Cheesecake Factory investment, which recently expanded its footprint to Washington, D.C., and Miami, saw sales climb 30%.
- No. 137 Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, where members of the chain’s popular wine club can now pay with just a signature, grew sales 16.7%
- Beer-focused Yard House (No. 75) saw sales grow 7.7%, thanks in part to its robust loyalty program and popular happy hour offerings.
Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report