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Study: Wait times down at most dinnerhouses

RICHMOND Va. In the battered casual-dining segment, the Olive Garden alone saw a year-to-year increase in customer wait times in 2008, according to a Wachovia Capital Markets study of 15 casual-dining brands.

The wait time at the Darden Restaurants Inc. chain increased one minute from a year ago, while the average wait times throughout the casual-dining sector, as monitored by Wachovia, fell two minutes from 2007. Wachovia, based in Richmond, Va., would not provide the average length of wait times in 2008 for the brands surveyed, only the changes from year to year.

The amount of time customers wait prior to being seated is considered a gauge of a chain’s guest traffic and sales health, as an increase in wait times typically means more customers are visiting the restaurant. The slowed economy has generally wreaked havoc on the casual-dining sector, however, as cash-strapped consumers have traded down to lower-priced fast-casual or quick-service restaurants, or dined at home. Most casual dinnerhouses have reported negative same-store sales trends throughout the year, with outliers being Olive Garden, Red Lobster — another Darden brand — and Buffalo Wild Wings.

To create the study, Wachovia analysts track the wait times at 300 locations nationwide on Friday nights each week. The chains followed include Applebee’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, The Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s, LongHorn Steakhouse, O’Charley’s, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, McCormick & Schmick’s, Red Robin, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and Texas Roadhouse.

For the fourth quarter, through Dec. 26, the average wait time for the 15 tracked brands was 14 minutes, down 3 minutes from a year ago, the survey found. Each chain reported a decrease in year-to-year wait times for the quarter, except for Applebee’s and Red Robin, which remained flat from a year ago at 6 minutes and 10 minutes, respectively. The longest wait during the quarter was at Texas Roadhouse, at 33 minutes, and the shortest wait was at Ruby Tuesday, at 4 minutes.

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