Could the recession kill off, or at least greatly injure, the scourge of casual dining chains?
We can only hope. Craig Fehrman at the Brand Graveyard at Salon has an interesting post about the way the recession is hitting Applebee’s, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, and TGI Friday’s in the gut. The customer base they draw on is trying to save money, and half-fun nights out calorie-loading and listening to waiters singing their chain’s specific birthday song over and over again are the first thing to go. But what’s most interesting about the piece is that the restaurants were already dying well before the recession hit, which means that hope for recovery is slim indeed. TGI Friday’s in particular is coasting on fumes.
But the most telling sign of Friday’s struggles has been its lack of cohesive corporate strategy. In addition to the (alarmingly titled) Give Me More Stripes rewards program, the chain has cooked up the following promotions in 2009: 10 Meals for $9.99; Buy One Lunch, Get One Free; Five Cent Appetizers; and the World’s Largest Inauguration Party. For the month of May, Friday’s unveiled its most desperate promotion yet — it would offer all 16 full-portion sandwiches and salads for $5, its lowest price since the first Friday’s opened in 1965. Friday’s isn’t looking for a strategy, it’s looking for a savior.
The only thing left for them to do is try to convince people there’s an entire extra meal in the day that we hadn’t thought about. The question is: Why have things turned so badly for the ubiquitous, tasteless chain? And can we find a way to do it to Olive Garden?
Fehrman offers a few reasons: slightly upscale fast food like Chipotle are offering competition, and market saturation of crappy casual dining chains have made it hard to grab market share. It’s also likely that people were feeling the pinch before the official recession, but it went unnoticed because unless rich people see their portfolios shrink, the economy is fine in the media’s eyes. But in the light of the epic failure of the American car industry, we also have to ask ourselves—could it be that people started to realize that casual dining chains suck, and took their eating out dollar somewhere else?
Maybe. It seems like this is the most obvious reason to someone like me, who lives in a town where there’s an endless array of quality, independent restaurants that offer the same medium-level prices and mixed drinks as the casual dining chains, but don’t suck so bad that you feel like you just had sex against a dumpster with your sworn enemy after you eat there. And I always have, since west Texas is the land of the badass independent Mexican restaurant. But casual dining chains flourish where they don’t face a lot of competition, such as suburban areas where your only choices if you want to grab a couple drinks and dinner with family or friends is the chain restaurant. They especially thrive, I suspect, in areas where people have lots of obligatory family occasions but don’t really want to spend a ton of time with their family—thus, you get your food in a jiffy, keep the experience down to 45 minutes, and voila! Dinner is done.
Anyway, the appeal of these restaurants is their very mediocrity, as Fehrman explains—no one will enjoy their meal especially, but everyone can find something they can choke down, so it’s perfect for groups of people like coworkers or family that aren’t drawn together because of common interests.
No, the more likely villain is the Food Network-driven resurgence of cooking at home. Why go to Chili’s when you can cook one of Rachel Ray’s disturbing recipes at home and feed everyone there for much cheaper? You win on mediocrity points, it’s fast and simple, but you still get praised for the effort. Plus, no waiting around making chit-chat while waiting for a table. If this is true, then perhaps the casual dining chains may resurrect after the recession—cooking seems easy when Rachel Ray does it on TV, but after having a few gatherings like that, you remember that you have to wash the damn dishes.