Chains Trying Not to Be Our “Ball and Chain”

Going out for dinner? What about big chain restaurants?
Panera Bread Restaurant Exterior

From our mouths to the ears of nearly all dining chains, the short answer is, “Meh.” But if you really want to know, the long answer is, “I’d rather starve.”

For those of us born after 1980, it’s flattering to be the subject of so many studies and surveys on what we like to eat, when we like to eat it, where we go to get it, etc. etc. etc. And survey says casual dining chains are, for most of us, toxic in appeal.

We went along for the ride with our folks and grandrockers, but times have definitely changed. The chains where we ate popcorn shrimp and endless croutons are not anywhere near our feeding itineraries now.

USA Today had a big write-up in summer 2014, linked at www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/05/16/casual-dining-restaurants-red-lobster-darden/9169571/, that gives an accurate reflection of what we’re looking for in casual dining. Rather than the yo-ho-ho of Red Lobster décor, we trend more to Panera and Chipotle. Just the way we roll.

If you didn’t/don’t have the opportunity to read the article, here’s an overview of how casual chains like Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s – and many others – could learn from fast casual chains. Yes, there’s a difference, and “fast” is part of it.

We want restaurants to think healthier. We want food that tastes good and food that’s going to benefit our bodies rather than add to health concerns. That means caloric count, lower sodium – healthier options on the menu.

We also want customized products such as those we find at Chipotle and Panera. And, really, people, we want fast service. We like the idea of ordering from table-top tablets. Streamlining. Efficiency. We like paying the same way for the same reasons. And if there are games on those tablets, heck yeah.

So what are some tricks you could use to draw us in?

We like better-looking surroundings. After all, we look good. Smile. We like change in atmosphere and in menus. Refer back to healthy options if necessary, and keep things fresh all the time. Be innovative. Hey, hire us to make those things happen.

We like value for the price. The USA Today piece talks about growth at certain chains and slogging sales at others. It’s not rocket science.

We like earthy, organic, artisan, almost rustic in nature. We’re drawn to new presentations – out-of-the-bookends with sun-dried tomatoes as the main ingredient in a wrap. Interesting choices in sweeteners, such as agave in our smoothies rather than high-fructose corn syrup. Healthy fats! We love what avocados do for our bodies and our minds.            So… bring it on, you chains that want to woo us, because there are some studies that show we’re eating out less than our parents did at this stage in their lives. If what is popping up in numbers actually becomes a trend, it could mean 50 million or more of us could be opting out as members of the chain gang altogether.

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