TORY N. PARRISH
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Traditional family-restaurant chain Eat’n Park is expanding its foray into fast-casual dining with its first Hello Bistro location outside of Pittsburgh.
The company opened bistro locations in Oakland, South Side and Downtown since 2012 and this summer will open one in McCandless Crossing shopping center, said Kevin O’Connell, senior vice president of marketing for Homestead-based Eat’n Park Hospitality Group.
Industry experts say many restaurants chains are seeking to break into the growing fast-casual market — restaurants that typically do not provide full table service but offer a higher-level dining experience than fast-food restaurants.
The fast-casual market segment led restaurant industry growth in 2013, growing 11.3 percent, according to a 2014 report by Technomic Inc., a Chicago restaurant research firm. Meal prices typically range between $9 and $15, the firm said.
Hello Bistro has a salad bar with 55 toppings, but employees prepare the salads according to customer requests, similar to food-ordering at fast-casual restaurants Chipotle and Qdoba Mexican Grill.
The bistro will offer pre-made salads, hamburgers and french fries, which employees will take to seated diners’ tables, O’Connell said.
Eat’n Park, founded as a car hop in 1949, has 70 family-dining restaurants in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Its bistro concept is designed to go into urban areas that can’t accommodate a full-service restaurant, O’Connell said.
McCandless Crossing, a $100 million development off McKnight Road, has a movie theater, banks, hotels, offices, townhouses, and other restaurants. Panera Broad opened there in January, its first Pittsburgh-area site with a drive-through. A Trader Joe’s grocery store is slated to open in March.
Eat’n Park’s market research found that millennials have grown up with Subway, Starbucks and even their mothers catering to their specialized food tastes, O’Connell said: “They want to have some control over what (they’re) eating.”
Growth opportunities for family-style dining have been limited because the segment is mature and has declined for more than a decade, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic.
“The best opportunity is to create a fast-casual concept built off of the pillars of either food, service or the history of the brand,” Tristano said.
IHOP and Denny’s recently entered the fast-casual segment with IHOP Express and Denny’s Fresh Express.
Eat’n Park included popular menu items — hamburgers and the salad bar — for its bistro, O’Connell said.
But its broad menu may create challenges, Tristano said.
“To the extent they can leverage products that have been successful in full-service, it creates a more convenient and affordable dining experience,” he said.