Reporter's Notebook
Casual dining chains on the rebound

Casual dining chains on the rebound

So much for the death of the casual dining chain.

According to the Chicago-based market research firm NPD Group, casual dining visits were flat in the 12 months ending in February.

That might not seem like much, but consider that traffic at casual diners had been in steep decline for years. There are seven-year-olds who don’t know life without a declining casual dining sector.

What’s more: Visits to small and large casual dining chains actually grew over the past 12 months, while visits to independents declined. And casual dining sales rose 3 percent.

The numbers confirm evidence that casual dining chains are on something of a rebound.

Most casual dining concepts reported improving sales in the fourth quarter of last year, based on Nation’s Restaurant News data, and early reports from the first quarter of this year have been positive — despite weakening sales in both February and March.

Dine-in concepts have had the wind at their back lately, thanks to lower gas prices and rising employment. But many chains have worked hard to improve menus, remodel locations and add technology.

Chains like Applebee’s have remodeled most of their locations. Chili’s added equipment to improve efficiency and expand its menu. Some chains have added tabletop tablets to improve speed, or they’ve enabled customers to put themselves on a wait list before they arrive at the restaurant. The chains also spent heavily on marketing, and many are now shifting away from discounts that had dominated casual dining sales strategies for years.

These investments might be leaving behind independents that don’t have the resources to match these efforts.

“It’s been a rough road for casual dining operators,” Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst, said in a statement. “Major and small chains, which have the capital to hang in there and the marketing power to promote, are beginning to see the fruits of their labor.”

Still, she added that casual dining operators still have to understand the needs of today’s consumer. “What these consumers wanted 10 years ago is different than what they want today,” she said.

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