As casual-dining chains struggle to find their place in a world where food is available everywhere, we should consider: What does casual mean now anyway?
Independent restaurants took a stab at defining what casual means to their operations at the “Casual By Design” Worlds of Flavor conference last month hosted by The Culinary Institute of America at its campus in St. Helena, Calif.
Charles Bililies, founder and CEO of the three-unit Greek restaurant Souvla, described casual dining as a place nice enough you’d take a date there.
Bililies said consumers would take a date to Souvla — despite being a place where you order at the counter — because of the ambience, including music and candles.
Norma Perez from Edens, an operator of community-oriented shopping places, said casual dining is about creating an environment where diners feel comfortable saying hi to a stranger.
As casual-dining chains look to the future, they could benefit from borrowing from the independent sector and crafting a unique dining setting. Just because casual-dining chains are chains doesn’t mean they can’t also be neighborhood restaurants.
A good restaurant experience can mean different things to different diners. For instance, look at Gen Z:
“This generation is really about the experience. They are willing to wait two hours to go to a place that has the technology behind it” over a brand they might traditionally go to, said Adam Millman, senior director of Yale Dining at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago last week.
For certain Gen Z diners that means a tabletop device for easy ordering might be worth waiting for.
And for a growing number of consumers, the experience at casual-dining restaurants now extends beyond the dining room. Last year 16 percent of casual-dining visits were off premise, according to The NPD Group.
As more casual-dining chains roll out delivery and takeout programs they have a chance to bring their brands to customers’ homes.
The couch is the new dining room.
With the right delivery partners, the right technology and the right packaging, there is more opportunity than ever for casual-dining restaurants to become that go-to neighborhood restaurant, even when their customers want to stay home.
Jenna Telesca, Editor-in-Chief
E-mail: [email protected]