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Casual dining goes back to the bar

Casual-dining chains, many of which originated in the fern bar era of the late-'60s and '70s, are placing a renewed emphasis on their higher-margin bar business as dining-room traffic and food sales continue to slide.

This week, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro unveiled a new happy hour promotion in 27 states that offers drinks between $3 and $6 between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. In November, Ruby Tuesday completed a revamped beverage and bar program, including signature cocktails and premium well liquors for $5, flat-screen TVs in each bar, and training for its 3,000 bartenders nationwide. And industry bar-and-grill veteran T.G.I. Friday’s has ramped up its seasonal specialty drink promotions and offered reduced-price and free appetizers in its bars.

"There’s a downtime between lunch and dinner where restaurants can really do something to maximize their footprint," David Henkes, a vice president at consultancy Technomic Inc., said.

He pointed to a recent survey of 2,500 consumers that found that only 14 percent of beverage-consuming occasions were in the afternoon segment, leaving much room for growth. Squeezing as much money out of the bar areas – and during down times – could bring incremental revenue, especially as same-store sales remain negative at nearly all lower-priced bar-and-grill brands.

In addition, there is a chance to encourage customers to remain at the restaurant longer.

“Anything you can do to get consumers to stay for dinner or to buy other drinks will pay off," Henkes said.

At Ruby Tuesday, completing a bar-area facelift was an effort to “create more energy in our restaurants,” Andy Scoggins, the vice president of culinary and beverage at parent company Ruby Tuesday Inc., said last fall. Its moves were cited as one reason the chain was able to post rarely seen positive year-to-year guest traffic for its latest quarter.

For 2010, Ruby Tuesday started the year with a giveaway at the bar, where guests can receive a free Ruby Mini, or miniature burger, with fries when they order a drink priced at $3 or more. The giveaway took place all day Jan. 1 and will continue for the rest of the year for customers visiting the bar after 9 p.m.

Mark Young, senior vice president for marketing at Ruby Tuesday, said in an earnings conference call Wednesday that “we continue to analyze our business by specific periods to see if there are additional opportunities to get more sales out of existing assets.”

P.F. Chang’s happy hour promotions range from $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon and $3 imported draft beers to sakes, wines, high balls and $6 margaritas. The food menu spans $3 spring rolls to $6 spare ribs.

The “3-6” happy hour is not available in all states or at all locations, the company said.

Among bistros not participating are those in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Utah. Individual locations not offering the promotion are those in Carlsbad, Calif., Alpharetta, Ga., Atlanta, Buford, Ga. and the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nev.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected] .

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