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Egged on by a QSR onslaught, family chains stress service, abundance


In a recent Shoney's ad, a sumptuous buffet of pancakes, eggs, sausages, bacon and fresh fruit was juxtaposed with a meager egg-and-bacon item. "This is our breakfast. This is theirs," the tagline said.

The ad from the Nashville, Tenn.-based chain is an undisguised response to heightened competition from quick-service chains at breakfast, the traditional stronghold of family restaurants like Shoney's. Chains such as Burger King, McDonald's and Jack in the Box are targeting time-pressed consumers who seek convenient breakfast options, with success reflected in their sales figures. No wonder QSR giants Wendy's and Taco Bell are also moving into that field.

Instead of copying QSRs by offering more grab-and-go options, many family chains are emphasizing strengths that harken back to their roots. Many are trying to hold onto their share of a growing market by stressing such traditional points of difference as abundance, made-to-order choices, indulgence and service.

Although the QSRs entered the breakfast market "with a bang," they do not directly challenge the competitive strengths of full-service family restaurants, said Nancy Kruse, trends analyst and president of Atlanta-based The Kruse Co. Family-dining chains offer "a real sense of satisfaction" and "a service that cannot be duplicated," she said.

Abundance is key at Denny's, where the Grand Slam Breakfast has been attracting customers with big appetites since 1975. With its $5.99 Mega Breakfasts specials, the current promotion underlines the offer of ample portions of made-to-order food at an attractive price. "We recognize the breakfast attack from QSRs," said spokeswoman Debbie Atkins. "We're trying to broaden the gap in quality."

Shoney's, with 285 restaurants, is keeping a hearty breakfast buffet as its focal point. The daypart still drives 35 percent of business, said Dan Dahlen, chief marketing officer. The chain is getting ready to mount an aggressive new-product strategy, he disclosed. "Everybody knows we have a breakfast buffet," Dahlen said. "But we have to freshen up the offerings and keep this message attractive to prospective customers."

"We offer a breakfast experience," said Chris Tomasso, chief marketing officer at First Watch, a 67-unit breakfast-and-lunch chain headquartered in Bradenton, Fla. A vast array of customizable choices is a strong asset of the sit-down environment, he said. For instance, if customers are health-minded, they can choose an egg-white omelet or cholesterol-free items. "Our restaurants have no fryers," he added.

Tomasso stressed that QSRs cannot compete with the prepared-to-order premise of full-service restaurants. Instead of microwaved sandwiches, breakfast items at First Watch are made up fresh and still can be taken out, he said.

Dahlen also noted that convenience can't be disregarded. "While we don't have drive-thru windows, the breakfast buffet enables customers to get what they want but also be back on the road in 15 minutes or so."

"Drive-thru doesn't really save a lot of time," asserts IHOP spokesman Patrick Lenow. And, he adds, personal service is important to customers of the 1,278-unit family chain. "We offer food with a smile," he said.

Yet, in a concession to the time pressures that many breakfast customers feel during the workweek, family-dining chains are intensifying their focus on the weekends. "People tend to treat themselves during the weekend, so we offer them an extravagant breakfast," said Lowell Petrie, vice president of marketing at Mimi's Café, a family-oriented chain with roots in southern California.

With "indulgent" options such as the new Stacked and Stuffed Hotcakes, Bob Evans Farms targets customers who tend to eat moderately during the week but expect a more decadent, "wait-on-me" experience when they relax on the weekend, said Mary Cusick, senior vice president of marketing for the Columbus, Ohio-based chain.

While family-dining chains strengthen the selling points that built their reputations, they are also tentatively exploring new grounds. Kruse cites the use of fresher and more seasonal products. Mimi's, for instance, offers seasonal features such as asparagus omelets during springtime or pumpkin pancakes in the fall.

"It caters to those flavor seekers who always look for something new," commented Petri.

Kruse foresees more ethnic and daring menu items showing up on the menus of family chains. Denny's Zesty Creole Scrambler is a good example. "Breakfast restaurants are not afraid to use more fully flavored food, " Kruse said.

Family-dining restaurants also are following in the footsteps of QSRs in upgrading their coffee or even introducing their own signature brand — tactics that have been adopted widely in recent months within the QSR market.

Shoney's now promotes Shoney's Fresh Roast, "a deeper, richer, more robust coffee," said Dahlen.

First Watch also introduced a stronger proprietary brand. According to Tomasso, the introduction was not so much inspired by the competition but by the need to "keep pace with the ever-changing coffee taste of America."

Sheri's, a family chain concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, now brews two varieties of premium coffee, a nod to Starbucks' offer of its regular French roast and a mild alternative.

-- By Irene de Vette

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