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NEW YORK –- An increasing number of full-service casual dining restaurants are experimenting with adding fast-casual spinoffs or service styles in order to gain traffic, reach a new customer base or reduce development and labor costs, according to a Nation's Restaurant News report. Approximately one quarter of casual dining consumers are eating out with less frequency, and 40 percent of those consumers are choosing fast-casual or quick-service restaurants instead, according to data provided by foodservice research firm Sandelman & Associates.
However, the move can still be difficult, as fast-casual brands such as Five Guys Burgers & Fries, Chipotle and others are perceived as having many of the same positive attributes as casual-dining brands, including friendliness and food quality.
"Fast casual has set the bar really high," Sandelman's Chris Miller told the news outlet. "In order for a new concept to break in, [it] has to really deliver on that great food and experience."
Full-service casual dining restaurants that have experimented with changes over the last few years include:
- Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. The Greenwood Village, Colo.-based chain launched its Red Robin's Burger Works spinoff two years ago. The fast-casual restaurant offers five of Red Robin's signature burgers and French fries, salads, chicken tenders, milkshakes, beer and wine. All items are ordered a la carte to give customers greater ordering flexibility.
- Famous Dave's of America Inc. Minnetonka, Minn.-based Famous Dave's of America Inc. opened its first fast-casual BBQ Shack near the company's headquarters in December 2011, followed by two other locations. Customers order at a counter before taking a seat and being served by light waiter service. The BBQ Shacks have also shown strength in their takeout service, with 40 percent of their business being off-premise.
- Denny's Corp. The Spartanburg, S.C.-based company developed two fast-casual concepts, Fresh Express and All Nighter, both of which are targeted for college campuses. Since launching in 2010, they have expanded to 12 locations in total. The brands feature to-go items such as the Grand Slamwich, a version of Denny's signature Grand Slam breakfast. They have done well so far, but the company has not yet decided whether to expand them nationwide, said Greg Powell, vice president of concept innovation for Denny's.
- Red Lobster. Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants added a lunchtime "Seaside Express" test at two of its Orlando-area Red Lobster locations last month. Customers can either order at a counter and seat themselves for a fast-casual service style, or opt for the traditional full-service Red Lobster experience, said company officials. The lunch menu includes certain sandwiches, soups and salads for $6.99 to $8.99 each.
"This limited test is designed for time-constrained guests who eat out for weekday lunch, and will help us learn more about the opportunity to expand our lunch offering to guests who are looking for a faster, more convenient casual-dining experience," stated Red Lobster spokeswoman Heidi Schauer in an e-mail.
Burger Works is currently in a "test phase," according to CEO Stephen Carley, with four locations in and around Denver and one at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Carley added the brand is doing well and could expand to more non-traditional and smaller-footprint locations.
- Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar. Kansas City, Mo.-based Applebee's began offering Express Lunch, a fast-casual, speedier lunch service, at two locations last July and expanded it to 23 locations. A kiosk inside full-service Applebee's restaurants offers Express Lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. customers can order and pay at a counter, then take a seat in the restaurant and wait for their food. The menu features sandwiches, soups and salads, with a Pick 'N Pair combo that starts at $6.99, with the goal of getting customers in and out in 30 minutes or less if that is what they want.
"We have a very strong core business in dinner, [and] our late night business has been growing very well over the past couple of years. Lunch is the daypart where guests have special needs," said Becky Johnson, senior vice president of culinary and marketing at Applebee's. Johnson added the chain will continue to work on the lunch program.