Casual-chain execs should stop worrying about when the recession might end and turn their attention to the real issue of their segment: Has casual dining jumped the shark?
There’s a mindset taking hold that young people in their late teens are forsaking the Chili’s, T.G.I. Friday’s and Applebee’s of the world. As a longtime veteran of that sector observed, his 19-year-old daughter wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those places. She and her friends prefer fast-casual specialists like Panera, Pei Wei or Chipotle—concepts that promise better, less-processed food at a more affordable price, without the complications of sit-down service.
Drinks, a big part of casual restaurants’ appeal for Baby Boomers, aren't that much of a draw to the younger set. You can get a water, tea or Red Bull just about anywhere.
Fellow blogger and casual-dining stalwart Lane Cardwell has similarly heard the rumblings. As he wrote in a recent posting…
It appears from conversations with a large number of restaurant operators that there is a generational divide that exists between fast casual and casual dining. The younger Gen X'ers and older Millennials (ages 18-35 ) seem to prefer fast casual and Baby Boomers seem to prefer casual dining.He speculates that younger patrons are drawn by the newness, faster pace and pricing of fast casual, while those of us with a few more miles on the chassis appreciate the familiarity of the big casual brands and the comfort of table service.
It’s a generational divide the industry has seen before, ironically when casual dining really caught fire in the 1980s. Beforehand, one of the dominant chain sectors of the business had been family dining, populated by brands like Howard Johnson, Denny’s, Coco’s/Carrows, Village Inn/Bakers Square, Bob Evans, Big Boy, Shoney’s, JB’s and a host of others.
It’s no secret that those concepts had the sort of experiences in the 1990s that could fuel a thousand blues songs. They had their fans, but their fans were growing older and older. The diehards' sons and daughters just didn't have the same regard for the brands.
Some are altogether gone today, and the others are far different animals than they were in their heyday. The market moved on to other concepts, and they were left behind.
Is the same thing happening to casual dining? No one really knows. But it’s a much more deserving target of mental energy than trying to guess when consumers will spend again.