Is Flex-Casual the new Fast Casual?

October 27, 2011

flex fast casual

Is Flex-Casual the new Fast Casual?

A new dining category may be emerging as the restaurant industry tries to keep up with what the busy, budget-aware consumer demands.


Industry analysts predict that “flex-casual,” trademarked by Randy Murphy to describe his business model at Mama Fu’s, may be the best way to describe the crossover between casual dining and fast casual restaurants.


“We’re probably going to see quite a bit more of this hybrid as fast casuals try to pick up speed in the dining segment,” said Technomic’s Darren Tristano, who had not yet heard the term but said it probably best describes the trend. “(Fast casuals) do a great job at lunch – giving a good atmosphere, high-quality food at a good price point also the speed of service — but not many have been very successful in the dinner part.”


What is flex-casual?


Murphy, who was a Mama Fu’s franchisee before becoming the brand’s CEO in 2008, defines flex-casual as combining fast casual and casual dining into one concept, where the customer gets fast casual during lunch and full service during dinner – at the same price point.


“I realized that our revenue split was about 55/45 percent lunch to dinner, and considering our customer base was weighted toward families in the evenings and weekends, I decided to start doing full service at night to increase ticket average and provide a more relaxing and enhanced service experience,” he said.


After the move toward flex casual, Murphy’s revenue split changed to 45/55 percent lunch to dinner.


“That is a better model than living more heavily on lunches – so we decided to keep that going forward and after acquiring the brand in 2008, we made flex-casual our standard for the brand,” Murphy said.


Mama Fu’s eventually added delivery, online ordering, loyalty programs, enhanced food and beverage items and is now planning to roll out a call center to improve the guest experience for call-in orders.


Although neither Tristano nor Murphy knew of any other restaurants officially branding themselves as flex-casual, Tristano said Buffalo Wild Wings’ service model is comparable. The restaurant doesn’t split up full service and fast casual into dayparts like Mama Fu’s, but it does feature aspects of both types of service. Customers order at the counter, but a server brings their orders to the table. Each restaurant also has a bar and is known as a gathering place for customers to watch sporting events. It’s basically up to the diner to decide their in-restaurant experience.


“I’d say it’s about 50-50 full service and fast casual; if you are looking at a successful model that’s a great model,” Tristano said.


Murphy expects it’s only a matter of time before competitors jump on his flex-casual bandwagon.


“In general, customers desire a differing service model depending on day-part — in-and-out quick during lunch — and a more relaxed dining experience for dinner,” he said. “Flex-casual satisfies that without dramatically increasing operating complexity.”

View the full article on Fast Casual

More Restaurants Offering Happy Hours

October 27, 2011

Happy Hour

More Restaurants Offering Happy Hours

The Clarmont has finally given in.

For the first time in its 64 years, the steakhouse has a happy hour.

“I resisted for the longest time,” said owner Thom Coffman, “but I realized this is where the industry is going. More and more of my competitors are doing it, so I finally gave in.”

He hopes the move will allow the Clarmont “to reach out to the people who haven’t tried us before, like the people who drive by the restaurant every day but haven’t had the incentive to stop in,” he said.

He also hopes it will help attract more younger diners.

Five new signature dishes have been created for a new happy-hour-only menu at the restaurant, at 684 S. High St. They’re available only from 5 to 7 p.m. every weekday.

The dishes include prime rib sliders with creamy horseradish sauce on fresh rolls; fish tacos made with mahi mahi and served with wasabi sauce; mini meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a chipotle-glazed ketchup; and a steak-tip pizza with fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, herbs and balsamic glaze.

Each dish costs $5.

Drink specials include $5 martinis, $2.50 domestic beers and $4.25 wines by the glass.

The happy hour began about three weeks ago and has been well-received by regulars and the employees who had been pushing for months to add a happy hour, Coffman said.

“I just never thought we needed to do a happy hour here, because we make really good drinks, and my cocktails are already so much less expensive than other restaurants. I thought that was value enough.”

But times have changed.

Like others, Coffman realized the late afternoons and other slow times of the day are ripe with the opportunity to increase the bottom line.

Happy hour is seen by the industry largely as a way to reach out to younger patrons.

A recent study by consumer researchers at the Service Management Group in Kansas City, Mo., and the Boston Consulting Group found that 13 percent of patrons younger than 34 are more than twice as likely to visit a restaurant during off-peak hours — meaning not traditional lunch or dinner hours — than are those older than 34.

Other restaurants, both chain and independent, have looked to traditional and late-night happy hours touting low-cost small plates and drink specials as a way to lure in budget-conscious customers since the recession began.

The Refectory recently extended its bar hours, added a lower-cost, earlier dinner option, and began offering weekday happy-hour appetizer specials.

Mimi’s Cafe announced last week that it, too, will have a happy hour, featuring $5 meals and drinks ranging in price from $3 to $5. Mimi’s President Mark Mears said happy hour gives people a chance to go out “while staying within their budgets.”

PF Chang’s told investors that its happy hour featuring $6 drinks and meals was the only growing part of its business in a dismal second quarter in which earnings fell 29 percent from the year before.

Applebee’s added late-night happy hours last year, and they now account for 13 percent of its total sales.

Even chains that don’t serve alcohol, such as Steak N Shake and Sonic, added happy hours with drink and food specials in recent years.

“It’s about filling those nonpeak” hours, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of industry research firm Technomic. “The goal is to get more traffic in without cannibalizing peak” sales periods.

“There’s a downtime between lunch and dinner where restaurants can really do something to maximize their footprint,” David Henkes, a vice president at Technomic, told Nation’s Restaurant News. “Anything you can do to get consumers to stay for dinner or to buy other drinks will pay off.”

Restaurants are reeling from challenging economic conditions such as high unemployment. Consumers are more focused on deals and cutting back on nonessentials.

Many restaurateurs were certain that many of the woes they had faced since 2008 would start to disappear this year, but “it just isn’t happening,” Coffman said. “So we’ve all had to adapt.”

Off the menu
• Charley’s Philly Steak is to open soon in the former Las Margaritas at 1836 Henderson Rd. on the Northwest Side.

• Spain Restaurant is open at its new location at 76 W. Powell Rd. in Lewis Center. It recently moved from 888 E. Dublin-Granville Rd.

• Chipotle opened its first restaurant in Whitehall last week, at 3822 E. Broad St., near the Town & Country shopping center.

• City Barbeque plans to open a restaurant in January at 2261 Stringtown Rd., Grove City, in the former El Mesquite Baja Grill in the Derby Square shopping center.

• Donatos will donate a portion of the profits of every large pizza sold in October to the Stefanie Spielman Fund in recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness month.

• Granville Inn has added three new faces to its executive management team. Javier Vazquez is the banquets and events manager, Kathleen Carey is the lodging director, and Daniel Morris is the bar manager.

Obit file
Ruby Tuesday, 1840 Hilliard-Rome Rd. on the Far West Side, has closed, but a Marlin & Ray’s seafood restaurant, which is a division of Ruby Tuesday, will open soon in the space.

View the full article on The Columbus Dispatch