By Charlie Hopper, guest blogger
Were you responsible in some part for a casual dining restaurant concept, and had you been perambulating the NRA Show in Chicago last Spring, and if you’d happened past the doors of the “He Said/She Said” town-hall-style education session in which Nancy Kruse, trend expert and president of The Kruse Company, shared the stage which Bret Thorn, Senior Food Editor at Nation’s Restaurant News, the discussion might have hit home.
“Casual dining versus Fast Casual. Where is the industry heading?” said Nancy.
“Casual dining is in trouble,” Bret said quickly. “It might be long-lasting and systematic.”
Nancy nodded as he spoke.
Bret continued, “People now want to spend their money and calories on something that’s ‘worth’ it—” implying, ouch, that casual dining concepts are not really worth either money or the calories acquired in a mouth full—“or at other times, they just want it quick. So casual dining is having trouble.”
“Casual dining chains have become formulaic,” said Nancy, agreeing with Bret in a flat, factual, there’s-no-question-about-it kind of tone that seemed almost in response to the invisible thought waves coming toward Bret that questioned his hypothesis. “It’s because of the equities markets.”
Equities markets. The perennial villains, resisting change and clinging to the success they’ve had with the concepts that were once vivid and exciting to consumers.
“It’s difficult to maneuver as times change,” Nancy said. “Purchasing protocols are in place, and so on. If the path diverges?” She shrugged. “They’re stuck. And then there’s the hipness factor. So, really, Fast Casual may eventually lose luster because they’re formulaic, now, too. Captive to their formula.”
“The most successful restaurants are the most responsive and reflexive, no matter how many stores,” said Bret.
“Are independents where the hip factor is?” Nancy asked the room.
“Ha, well, independents all tend toward formula, too, the ‘Gastropub,’” said Bret, adding a little bit of an air-quote-style edge of mild contempt to the term.
“Edison bulbs, reclaimed barnwood,” Nancy agreed. “Even the independents have certain conventions.”
She asked the audience. “So what have some of you seen? Casual Dining vs. Fast Casual?”
A Chili’s server found the microphone long enough to say, “Tableside guac!” It got a chuckle from the audience. “It’s a pain. But people like it…”
Someone else spoke into the second microphone. “Hi. Well, you know, Fast Casual invests in higher quality ingredients. Chipotle pays an extra $3 a pound for grass fed beef. Plus, you can customize, and there’s no 15% tip.”
“But would you go on a nice date there?” Nancy asked. “Would you go there on a date?”
The audience member thought she would.
“I don’t know. A nice date? Like a first date? You must be—are you?—yes, a Millennial,” Nancy said, and got a laugh from the crowd. “But my generation, at least, I think we want to go someplace nicer, some place with more individuality.”
To that point, the Chili’s waitress volunteered. “It’s hard to be an individual at a chain, because you’re drilled to ask the same specials at every table.”
Someone else asked, “Do you see maybe a hybrid?”
Bret said, “Ah, flex casual. Fast casual for lunch and it costs, like, five bucks, then casual dining for dinner…”
Nancy seemed dubious. Customer service training is different, food delivery is different, all in the same day. “Their systems aren’t designed for that,” she said.
At the end of the discussion, they left it pretty clear that they're worried for certain Casual Dining and Fast Casual chains as they become more formulaic...and they’re especially bearish on any unhip "Casual Dinosaurs" (my term, which I just thought of) that are slow-to-adapt.