Will Novelty Foods Fix the Fast Food Slump?

August 15, 2016

1471036997485By Vera Gibbons
http://www.foxbusiness.com/features/2016/08/15/will-novelty-foods-fix-fast-food-slump.html 

Grilled hot dogs. Mac ‘n Cheetos. Beefy Frito burritos. Chicken rings. Hot dog-crusted pizza. The revival of old cult favorites like clear soda and chicken fries.

And now – the “Whopperrito.”

Yup, this burger/burrito hybrid goes national today following successful test debuts in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

What gives? Why are the fast food chains putting so many weird – if not repulsive – food gimmicks on their menus? “It’s about generating traffic,” says Darren Tristano, president of Technomic Inc., a food service research firm.

There’s been a pullback in the industry, you see. A slump. And everyone’s feeling it – from Shake Shack (SHAK) to Starbucks (SBUX) to McDonald’s (MCD).

“Things were going really well at the start of the year when all the economic indicators that would correlate to positive restaurant conditions were in a good place – gas prices were low, confidence was up, housing was settled – and then in April, the switch turned off even though the indicators were still in place.”

Why? Tristano says there isn’t one specific reason for the softness. “People are buying food from other places – supermarkets, convenience stores; they’re eating at home more; and then there’s the presidential election, which could be a trigger point. It’s really the most tangible explanation anyone can point to—political uncertainty.”

Regardless, consumers – especially those looking ahead and thinking about college obligations and other expenses – are watching their wallets, says economist, Arjun Chakravarti, Assistant Professor of Management and Marketing at the Stuart School of Business.

While the younger set (The 25-year old group without 401ks and exposure to the global markets) is more optimistic about the economy and therefore more inclined to spend (especially in light of slightly rising wages and lower gas prices), says Chakravarti, the reality is that purse strings are pretty tight right now. And they’re not expected to loosen them anytime soon.

In fact, restaurant sales, virtually flat, are expected to remain weak for the rest of the year, according to The NPD Group, an industry research firm.

Is this a warning sign for the economy? “A downturn in restaurant sales increases the likelihood of a recession, but the hope is that it’s counteracted/buffered by expectations for increases in business spending in the 3rd quarter,” says Chakravarti.

Fast food chains aren’t taking any chances. They’re responding by offering aggressive discounts that emphasize affordability, and unleashing innovative, zany mash-ups that are more profitable (Burger King’s “Whopperrito” will sell for $2.99; $4.99 when wrapped into a combo meal.).

Buzz marketing – a viral marketing technique that is focused on maximizing word-of-mouth potential largely on social media platforms – is the name of the game, says Dan Rene, senior vice president at LEVICK, A strategic communications firm. “Fast food chains are engaging customers by selling them an ‘experience’ and this is an ‘experience’ that customers want to be part of, and share—pictures, posts, you name it.”

“It doesn’t matter whether or not customers like the food or what it tastes like. If everyone’s talking about it and the hype results in more foot traffic for the fast food chain, it’s won.”


McDonald’s reaps the benefit of all day breakfasts and table service

February 9, 2016

McDonald's signature rangeEven though we’re only into its second month, 2016 been rather a good year for Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s chief executive. His football team, Watford, is enjoying its best season in years and much the same can be said for the US fast-food giant.

The company surprised analysts with its latest quarterly results last week, with sales up 5.7pc in the US – nearly twice as much as had been predicted. Global sales are up by 5pc.

It has taken a Briton – albeit one steeped in McDonald’s corporate culture – to revive the most American of institutions, which was in danger of being left behind by rather nimbler competitors in the fast food industry.

From introducing all-day breakfasts throughout the US to testing waiter service at some of its outlets, including in the UK, Easterbrook has overhauled how the company operates at a bewildering pace.

The chain was in something of a mess when Easterbrook took over as chief executive in March 2015. Last August, for the first time in more than 45 years, McDonald’s announced that it was closing more outlets than it was opening.

European sales had dropped by 1.4pc, between 2008-14. In the US, the decline was 3.3pc and in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, once considered a growth region, a rather frightening 9.9pc.

It was not just the dire figures which suggested that McDonald’s was in need of a cultural shift. The company was facing competition from not only its traditional rivals, such as Burger King and Wendy’s, but also from hipper new competitors entering the market, such as Honest, Byron, Five Guys and Shake Shack.

It was pretty clear that the golden arches had lost their sparkle. Within weeks of taking over the reins, Easterbrook appeared on CBS’s This Morning television progamme in the US to signal that the 60-year-old company was in for a radical overhaul.

“We really want to assert McDonald’s as a modern burger company. To do that you have to make meaningful changes in the business,” he said. “The pace of change outside McDonald’s has been a little quicker than the pace of change within. You act your way to success, you can’t talk your way to success.”

For once, this was not empty corporate-speak. All-day breakfasts were tested in San Diego in April, and within months were available at all the company’s 16,000 US restaurants. This has brought back customers who might have gone elsewhere and even tempted in newcomers.

Other changes have seen the introduction of a “McPick menu” where US customers can have two items for only $2, despite the wafer-thin profit margin the deal provides.

The range of burgers has also been increased to include Pico Guacamole and Buffalo Bacon, and diners are now being allowed to customise their burgers. McDonald’s has also launched its first loyalty programme for people who register their details, offering, for example, a free cup of coffee for every five bought at one of its restaurants.

Easterbrook has also done something to improve McDonald’s corporate image, announcing a 10pc pay rise for the 90,000 people who work in outlets directly owned by the company in the US. This has taken their hourly minimum wage to $9.90 an hour – increasing to more than $10 this year – considerably higher than the legal minimum of $7.95.

The one caveat, however, was that the pay rise was limited to those staff who work for the 10pc of restaurants which are owned by the company rather than franchisees. Even the white packaging is being ditched after more than a decade. Instead, food now comes in brown paper bags which, in theory, are seen as more environmentally friendly.

According to a company spokesman, the change is “consistent with our vision to be a modern and progressive burger company” –a phrase now something of a corporate mantra.

“One of the things Easterbrook has done is create a sense of urgency in the the McDonald’s business culture,” said Mark Kalinowski, a restaurant analyst at Nomura in New York. “When the company started trialling the all-day breakfast in San Diego county in April, it only took until October before it went nationwide.

“He doesn’t want to waste time, he operates on speed to market and saw it was clearly something customers wanted.

“For McDonald’s, that is rather quick. Although it can be innovative, the company is traditionally slow- moving. I think it’s a reflection on its sheer size.” Even though Easterbrook has spent much of his career with McDonald’s, having joined in 1993, he also spent time with the rather more upmarket Wagamama and Pizza Express chains. He returned to McDonald’s in 2013 as chief brand officer, having held previous roles including its head of Europe.

“Most of the presidents and chief executives at McDonald’s we have seen have been promoted from within. Having somebody with an outside perspective is exactly what the company needed” said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based company specialising in the food industry.

Tristano believes that Easterbrook’s strategy has been shrewd. “He has aggressively marketed the all-day breakfast, which has put McDonald’s back at the top of the mind of consumers.

“The price point appeals to lower and middle-income consumers who are looking for something which is less expensive than the dinner menu. This has helped McDonald’s get back some of the market share which it had been losing to rivals.”

McDonald’s has also been helped by the rehabilitation of the egg in the mind of the consumer, Tristano added.

“If you go back a few years, eggs were seen as high-cholesterol. Now they are seen as high-protein and eggs are a key part of breakfast.

“The sales growth on a year over year basis is over a few years of weak sales performance, so the numbers are good but we should expect to see sustainable growth and especially year over year, fourth quarter 2016 would signal McDonald’s is officially back.

“McDonald’s appears to be listening to their customers and staying more true to their brand under Easterbrook.”

The consensus appears to that Easterbrook has enabled McDonald’s to regain its mojo. “He has brought a sense of strategic clarity, said John Quelch, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.

“There is a tendency when a company gets into trouble to sling products at the wall and see what sticks. All that does is adds complexity. If you reach a point when you can’t explain to an employee or a franchisee what the point of a product is, then how can you expect them to explain that to a customer?

“The bench strength of McDonald’s is enormously good. It is no surprise that they were able to find somebody like him to step up,” added Quelch.


Bloomin’ Brands Struggles in Quarter, as Chain Restaurants Face New Chef-Inspired Concepts

November 9, 2015

Justine Griffin
© 2015 Tampa Bay Times
http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/retail/bloomin-brands-struggles-in-quarter-as-chain-restaurants-face-new/2252436

While the “anti-chain” movement across the U.S. isn’t new, it is slowing down sales at some of the best known restaurant brands, including Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. Bloomin’ Brands, the Tampa parent of Outback and Carrabba’s, is the most muscular restaurant company in Tampa Bay with $4.4 billion in revenue last year and 1,500 restaurants worldwide. But it’s anything but local to consumers here.

The company on Tuesday reported disappointing sales for the third quarter for most of its brands. CEO Liz Smith said casual dining as a segment in the hospitality industry was down from July to September, not just at their in-house brands.
“We knew the trends would be challenged,” Smith said. “And our marketing didn’t break through as expected.”

Bonefish Grill, which was intended to be the engine powering new growth for Bloomin’ Brands’ restaurant portfolio this year, saw the steepest declines, with sales down 6.1 percent for the quarter and traffic down 8.5 percent. It’s the second quarter of decline for Bonefish, which is in a competitive class of “polished casual” chain restaurants, and tends to be more pricey than dining experiences like a TGI Fridays or Olive Garden. The menu quality is more on par with restaurants like Seasons 52 or Carmel Cafe.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill reported a decline in the quarter of 2 percent sales and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar saw a 0.6 percent drop.

Outback Steakhouse, which performed well in new international markets like Brazil, was the only brand to report modest growth, at 0.1 percent, this quarter.

Chain restaurants are struggling to meet the changing trends fueled by younger demographics in the U.S., said Darren Tristano, executive vice president with Technomic, a restaurant research firm in Chicago.

“These are the same issues that most casual dining restaurants face today,” Tristano said. “Bloomin’ is no different than Darden” — the Orlando parent of Olive Garden and several other chains — “and most others in this regard.”

Another blow landed this summer when Bloomin’ Brands lost a bid to open an Outback Steakhouse and a Bonefish Grill in Tampa International Airport after $953 million in terminal renovations. The aviation authority board sought to make the airport’s restaurants feel more local, and one board member noted the company’s widely located chains made it feel less so. The Carrabba’s in the main terminal, which opened in 2008, is slated to close next spring.

Millennials and generation X-ers look for value but tend to try locally owned or chef-inspired restaurants rather than a chain, so it’s difficult for the casual dining chain restaurant to stand out in what’s become a very competitive market, Tristano said.

“It’s hard for chains to add more regional flavors to a menu, like local craft beer or local food options that the independent restaurants can do so easily,” he said. “They need to be more innovative and focus on the strengths that they do have, which usually is price, to get the attention of this next generation customer.”

Outback Steakhouse will roll out a new mobile phone app next year, which the restaurant chain has been testing in Tampa Bay. Through the app, customers can add their names to the wait list before they arrive at a restaurant, place take out orders and use to pay at the table.

“We will continue to invest in this kind of innovative tech platforms,” Smith said during Tuesday’s earnings call.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill will debut a simpler menu next year. Fewer items will be available, but the chain will add a new small plates category for tapas-style sharing at the table. Bloomin’ also changed the menu at Bonefish Grill earlier this year, with the same “less is more” theme.

“Too much on the menu overwhelms the customer,” Tristano said.

It also keeps food costs down, said Brian Connors, with Connors Davis Hospitality, a restaurant consulting firm in South Florida.

“Chains are the safe choice. Customers know what they’re going to get there and the restaurants know what they’re good at,” Connors said.

Bloomin’ Brands plans to continue to expand aggressively in new international markets like Korea and China. Much of the company’s growth has come from international openings this year.

“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel this way,” Connors said. But in this country, he suggested, they’ll need to come up with something new to keep attracting diners.

“We’ve entered this new age of adventure eating. Food recipes is one of the highest pinned categories on Pinterest,” Connors said. “People are willing and wanting to try something new.”

Bloomin’s brands: Tough quarter for sales
U.S. sales in the last four quarters
BrandQ3Q2Q1Q4 (2014)
Outback Steakhouse0.1 %4%5%6.4%
Carrabba’s Italian Grill- 2%2%1.9%0.3%
Bonefish Grill- 6.1%-4.6%0.9%0.7%
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar- 0.6%3.2%3.0%3.4%
Source: Bloomin’ Brands


The Problem That’s Tearing Restaurants Apart

September 4, 2015

2015-09-02_1259Roberto A. Ferdman,
Copyright 2015, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/08/20/theres-a-serious-problem-with-how-restaurants-pay-their-staff/

All across the country, restaurants are struggling to fill their kitchens. It’s happening on the East Coast in New York City and in the Midwest in Chicago; it’s happening out West, too, in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Good cooks, who were once in excess supply, are suddenly a lot tougher to find.

The truth is that despite what is shown on the Food Network or other cooking shows, being a cook is grueling work that’s not for the faint of heart. The slowdown in immigration over the past five years has also made it harder for kitchens to find staff because the industry is deeply reliant on immigrant labor.

But there’s another problem that’s been bubbling up for decades: Many of the people who work the kitchen have been getting shortchanged — especially when compared to the wait staff serving customers.

“The back-of-house staff are typically underpaid compared to the front of the house,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a restaurant industry research firm. “It’s a really big issue.”

On paper at least, cooks in this country are paid more than waiters. The median pay for cooks is about $10 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For waiters, it’s roughly $9 an hour. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story — because waiters are paid tips and kitchen workers are not. And tips completely skew the comparison.

The government’s estimate for how much waiters make includes a bit of guesswork about how much they earn from tips, since tips are often paid in cash, and things paid in cash tend to slip through the cracks. The Atlantic wrote about the issue earlier this year: “The IRS estimates that as much as 40 percent of tips go unreported. It’s hard to track for an obvious reason: Everyone likes giving and getting tips in cash. Nationally this adds up to as much as $11 billion in unreported (and untaxed) income.”

Waiters, in other words, are probably making a lot more money than Bureau of Labor Statistics data make it seem. PayScale, which tracks salaries through crowdsourcing, estimates that in cities like Miami, Boston and San Francisco, waiters can expect to make $13 an hour in tips alone, on average. Elsewhere, tips can add well over $10 an hour to servers’ salaries.

Waiters working in big cities understand this. But so do cooks, and they aren’t happy about it.

“The fact that servers are making so much money in tips is certainly a reference point that causes cooks to be dissatisfied with their pay,” said Michael Lynn, a Cornell University professor and one of the country’s foremost experts on tipping. “That is absolutely true. It’s the way it is.”

Waiters aren’t paid like everyone else. Unlike cooks, who are subject to the federal minimum wage, servers are instead compensated based on the assumption that they are going to earn some extra money on the side.

Restaurants are required to pay their wait staff what is known as the tipped-minimum wage, which is $2.13 per hour.

The understanding is that tips will make up for the difference between the tipped and regular pay floor. But even when the tips don’t make up that difference, waiters still make no less than the federal minimum wage because restaurants are legally required to pay the rest.

The truth, however, is that that rarely happens. The average base pay for waiters is $4.90, according to PayScale. What they make in tips is earned on top of that, and tips alone more often than not amount to a good deal more than the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

“It can be a very high-paying job,” said Tristano. “Especially considering that many entry-level cooks earn at or near the minimum wage.”

Kitchen workers aren’t allowed to share tips. Early on, it was common practice for restaurateurs to pool together tips and then split them among their entire staff. It was also common for tips to disappear en route to the employees, likely into the pockets of management.

Realizing the need for regulation, the government intervened, creating a set of rules known as the Fair Labor Standards Act, which stipulates, among other things, that, if tips are pooled, they can only be distributed among workers who “customarily and regularly receive tips.”

Cooks do not qualify. Neither do dishwashers or janitors.

“You can force a waiter to share a tip with a busboy or bartender but not with someone in the kitchen staff,” said Lynn. “It’s illegal to split tips with the cooks.”

Part of the reason for the measure was to ensure that there was no room for defrauding the public. If people think they’re tipping the waiter but aren’t, there’s a lack of transparency. But mostly, Lynn said, it was a hasty response to the outgrowth of firms plucking tips away from servers.

“It was a less than optimal solution,” he said. “It was patchwork. The problem is that it doesn’t really benefit the people working the back of house.”

Tristano agrees. “It’s not working for cooks,” he said. “It’s not working for them at all, and that’s never really been addressed.”

The number of chefs and restaurateurs who are concerned about the current system is growing. Last year, a panel that included celebrity chef Michael Chiarello and Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer discussed how the tipping system is creating pay inequality within restaurants. In 2013, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote a passionate takedown of tipping.

“The restaurant business can be seen as a class struggle between the groomed, pressed, articulate charmers working in the dining room and the blistered, stained and profane grunts in the kitchen,” Wells wrote.

Many restaurants have responded by breaking from the traditional tipping system. Some have gotten rid of tips altogether. For instance, Sushi Yasuda in New York City added this note to its credit card slip a couple years ago: “Sushi Yasuda’s service staff are fully compensated by their salary. Therefore gratuities are not accepted.” Many others have simply added a flat service charge.


Dunkin’ Donuts Slams New York Regulators Over Wage Increase

July 28, 2015

1200x-1

Juliana LabiancaFreeman Klopott
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-07-23/dunkin-donuts-lashes-out-at-new-york-regulators-over-wage-hike

Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc., the owner of Dunkin’ Donuts, upbraided New York regulators over a plan to boost fast-food wages to $15 an hour, a move the company said could lead to price increases.

A wage board formed by Governor Andrew Cuomo arrived at the decision without involvement from the restaurant industry, Dunkin’ Chief Executive Officer Nigel Travis said on a conference call Thursday.

“We’re deeply disappointed that the governor chose to skirt the legislative process by appointing a wage board, which did not even include a representative from our industry,” he said. “Our franchisees, and in fact other company’s franchisees, were denied the chance to fairly express their concerns.”

The board recommended on Wednesday that the minimum wage for fast-food workers be raised to $15 by 2018 in New York City and three years later in the rest of the state. Cuomo has indicated that his labor commissioner, who has final say, will follow the board’s advice, though adjustments may be possible. The increase, which will be phased in annually, applies to fast-food chains with 30 or more locations.

Dunkin’ is contemplating ways to adjust to the pay increase, Travis said. One option is boosting prices, he said.

Unfair Attention?

Travis complained that the fast-food industry was singled out by regulators, a concern echoed by McDonald’s Corp. Chief Financial Officer Kevin Ozan during a conference call Thursday. McDonald’s wants minimum-wage increases to “deal with all industries similarly,” he said. Ozan didn’t discuss New York City’s wage hike specifically.

Picking on fast food alone will put those businesses at a competitive disadvantage, said Randy Mastro, an attorney hired by a group of New York franchisees. The proposal, he said, targets business owners who are “already struggling to survive on low margins and cannot afford this 66 percent increase in labor costs for their entry-level workers.”

Restaurant companies have come under increasing pressure to boost pay over the past year. Large chains have a corporate social responsibility to pay a fair wage, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at research firm Technomic Inc.

“If you’re a chain, it may feel like you’re being targeted, that it’s making it harder to be successful,” he said. “But it’s the right thing to do.”

In response to Dunkin’ complaints, Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever referred to comments the governor made at a rally in New York City. At the event, he said higher wages are needed for workers to live a decent life.

“You cannot live and support a family on $18,000 a year in the state of New York,” Cuomo said. “That’s why we have to raise the minimum wage.”


Subway is Making a Huge Mistake That Could Undermine its Business

July 21, 2015

jared-fogle-subway-5Ashley Lutz
http://www.businessinsider.com/subways-rapid-expansion-could-hurt-business-2015-7

Subway’s biggest problem has nothing to do with shamed former spokesman Jared Fogle.

The company dismissed its weight-loss pitchman last week after his house was searched in an FBI investigation and one woman accused him of making inappropriate comments about middle-school girls.

While the scandal with Fogle will pass, the company’s rapid expansion plan is a bigger issue that could hurt business, according to Jonathan Maze at Nation’s Restaurant News.

“It’s really been a victim of its own success,” David Henkes, from the consulting firm Technomic, told Bloomberg. “It’s really saturated the market. It’s got over 27,000 (US) locations now. The unit economics are very tough. Competitors have really come in and provided some alternatives to consumers that have caused Subway to suffer some sales losses.”‘

Subway has 44,000 restaurants worldwide, more than McDonald’s. Executives say the company eventually plans to reach 100,000 locations.

Subway’s US sales last year fell by 3%, the biggest fall for any of the top 25 fast-food chains, Drew Harwell reports at The Washington Post.

Subway also fell two spots to become the third-most-popular fast-food restaurant for the first time in seven years.

The expansion plan is backfiring, according to The Post.

“More people have money to spend, and they’re choosing to spend a little bit more on better concepts where they get a better product,” Darren Tristano at Technomic told The Post. “Subway’s strategy has only been to open more stores, and ultimately those stores just cannibalize each other.”

In other words, Subway is so ubiquitous that customers leave one restaurant to go to a closer one.

Tristano also told Bloomberg that “if your goal is to have the most versus the best, you’ll eventually run into trouble.”

Subway should focus on innovating its menu instead, Maze said.

With its vegetables and lower calorie counts, Subway arguably invented the idea of “fresh” fast food two decades ago.

But while Subway stayed the same, better competitors got into the space.

Chipotle offers food that is raised without fillers or antibiotics and is prepared fresh in stores. Firehouse Subs and Potbelly offer elevated ingredients and side dishes such as gourmet kettle chips and potato salad.

Americans who once praised Subway’s low-fat offerings are now concerned the chain’s lunch meats and sauces are overly processed with fillers and additives.

“What Americans see as healthy has evolved,” Harwell writes. “Subway hasn’t.”


Romano’s Macaroni Grill Has a New Twist to Dining Options

July 10, 2015

pictureMike D. Smith
Copyright 2015. Hearst Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Distributed by NewsBank Inc.
http://www.pressreader.com/usa/houston-chronicle/20150709/281973196325188/TextView

As chain with 147 locations adjusts to desires of millennials, it adds a walk-up express line to its traditional sit-down table service

Fans of Romano’s Macaroni Grill can still walk in, take a seat and wait to order from a familiar-looking Italian-American menu. But diners seeking quicker, cheaper meals now can turn toward a walk-up express line and order from “Romano’s Kitchen Counter.”

The addition of this “fast-casual” option, with lower-priced and easier-to-prepare items, represents the latest shake-up for a chain that has seen its value plummet since 2008. Macaroni Grill’s newest owners are hoping to attract more of the typically younger customers drawn to places like Chipotle, Panera Bread and Zoës Kitchen, while not abandoning the full-table service it has provided for 27 years.

“We decided to play in both spaces,” CEO John Gilbert said recently at the Macaroni Grill at 5802 Westheimer Road.

The makeover comes amid an industrywide shift as restaurants struggle to keep pace with demographic changes, diners’ ever-evolving moods and a post-recession dining landscape that favors new, fresh, quality and quick.

Gilbert took over earlier this year after the sale of the company by Houston-based Ignite Restaurant Group for just $8 million. Ignite had paid $55 million for the properties two years ago, taking them off the hands of a California private equity firm that had given Dallas-based Brinker International $88 million in 2008.

The number of restaurants in the chain dropped as well, to 147 today from 200 at the time of the Brinker sale.

Those 147 locations churn out annual sales of about $350 million, serving about 20 million meals each year.

However, Gilbert saw much room for improvement.

The restaurants had undergone only one makeover once since 1992. That is a far longer interval than the seven years that Gilbert said is ideal.

As the restaurant chain’s brand aged, so did its core customer.

Part of the formula for Mac Grill’s turnaround is a remodel. The dimly lit interiors will undergo changes to make better use of each restaurant’s ample space. The exteriors are being studied for more eye-grabbing details that can capture passing traffic.

Those changes are to complement the most noticeable shift – the mix of express and casual service, cashing in on what Gilbert said is an undeniable industry change toward express service.

Dual-concept mode

The company first tested the dual-concept model in a Cleveland, Ohio, restaurant.

First came express lunch. Customers order at the counter from a different menu more suitable for quicker service, with more “handhelds,” like sandwiches, plus calzones, pastas and spaghetti. Express customers get a number and take a seat.

The chain took its express lunch national in October, then added a dinner express menu in February with a seven-minute guarantee for the $7 lunch and nine minutes for the $9 dinner.

“In the aggregate, it’s working,” Gilbert said, adding that he measures success through dining traffic. “Are we getting more people in our restaurants than we did before? I think, absolutely, that’s true.”

A growing segment

Of the 61 billion American restaurant visits in the year ending in May, fast casual accounted for 5 percent of the market, said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with NPD Group.

Still, it’s the segment everyone’s talking about. In 2009 and 2010, during the recession, overall restaurant industry growth was negative two years in a row for the first time.

Overall growth has been flat since. The segment bucking that trend is fast casual, which has posted 7 to 8 percent quarterly growth.

All of this is happening as the restaurant industry now features more options for ready-to-eat, fresh food – think, supermarkets and enhanced convenience stores – and sees, increasingly among millennials, more cooking at home.

“It’s been a real battle for market share, and with this one segment growing, everyone is seeming to try and emulate it,” Riggs said of fast casual.

While mixing fast casual with casual is attractive, Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food service consulting firm Technomic, says it can have its pitfalls.

One challenge is the potential for customer confusion. Those who know a restaurant’s brand will expect full service, and there can be a learning curve for others.

There’s also the risk of alienating core customers.

“I think that the mistake many of these concepts are making trying to compete with fast casual is they are losing sight of consumers coming to them for a particular reason, what they’re known for,” Riggs said. “You really have to do your homework and understand what your customers’ needs are. They can go to a fast-casual restaurant if they want fast-casual.”

Some brands have created offshoots to tap the express service market. Examples include Pizza Inn’s Pie Five and Red Robin’s Burger Works. Other brands have tried and failed.

The best use of a hybrid model is to boost lunch sales with more value, convenience and service, Tristano said.

Gilbert said that is happening with Macaroni Grill’s changes to date. Lunch sales, which represent about 30 percent of the chain’s business, have increased by about 20 percent.

Lunch express, so far, is more lucrative than express dinner.

Interior remodeling

Customers will begin to see the other changes soon. A Houston location will undergo the first interior remodel within a few months.

The company continues to explore additional express-service menu items, a new pizza-menu lineup, steakhouse items, additional salads and seafood. The dozen new express-menu items are being evaluated for their popularity, with such items as parmesan truffle fries and brunch offerings being explored.

There also are plans to test a “wine-on-tap” system and an express-only version of the restaurant – all part of the effort to retain its loyal customers and appeal to younger diners.

“The bigger risk is not doing anything,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said, too, that he admits the chain has to catch up to its competitors.

“There are customers who like us truly because we’re not busy,” he said. “That’s not healthy for us.”