I’m typing this very quietly because Security could detect me at any moment. I’ve managed to sneak into the nation’s leading restaurant thinktank, The Gravy Institute, to learn more about the startling new marketing strategy that’s taking hold of casual-dining chains.
The Institute, of course, was the crucible for the industry’s previous promotional breakthrough: Giving away food. Indeed, the internet now abounds in sites where you can learn how to eat restaurant fare for free on any given day—a dicey proposition for a trade that's in the business of selling food.
But that’s a Mister Rogers prescription compared with the crazy new idea that’s being hammered out here by the Institute’s best minds, Dr. Runyon Wanker and his longtime collaborator, Sir Ernest Turnip. Let’s listen in:
Wanker: By jove, that’s brilliant! Restaurants are losing business to supermarkets, since the economically-stressed prefer the economies of cooking at home. So why not beat those cabbage head stackers at their own game?
Turnip: Precisely, Wanker. Here’s how it works: The restaurants continue to offer free food—and a true bellyful, like a free entrée. But they provide it in an eat-at-home form! That way, the very at-home meals that keep people parked in front of “Dancing with the Stars” becomes the hook for restaurants.
Wanker: I believe you’ve lost me there, my good man. Do illuminate.
Turnip, with a tsk-tsk: People are buying meals or their components from the local supermarket. Ergo, they make fewer visits to restaurants. To win them back, a few restaurant chains have started dangling supermarket-style meals or products, like uncooked spaghetti, as the lure to get guests back through their doors. Buy a restaurant-cooked meal and get a second to have at home. The served meal becomes a means to the patrons' real end, a dinner in front of the tube.
Wanker: Huh. An example?
Turnip: Well, take Buca di Beppo’s new offer. Buy one entrée, you get a plate of spaghetti for free—and a 16-ounce box of pasta you can take with you to cook at home!
Wanker: But surely one example does not make a trend, my tweedy colleague. Remember the restaurant media's Rule of Three: Three instances make a trend, four examples indicates a sea change, but even two spottings signal a fluke.
Turnip: There’s another example, old sod. The Maggiano’s chain began a promotion last month that offered an entrée to have at home the next day if you bought a $12.95 dinner to eat in the restaurant. The freebie was packed up for you and delivered with the check, all set to pop into the microwave on Day Two.
Wanker: Diabolical, Turnip. Diabolical. But those are only two examples. You need a third instance of a chain providing an eat-at-home meal for every one you buy in the restaurant. And you don’t have it.
Turnip: On the contrary, my dear doctor. There’s a chain that offers such a deal—“eat one with us, get a second to eat at home”—as a matter of course.
Turnip: Yes. It’s called Cheesecake Factory.
With that, I'll make my escape to plot how I can take advantage of Buca’s free pasta offer. After all, it only lasts one day.
Perhaps with good reason.
That's Oct. 26, or National Pasta Day, if you want to see how the promotion performs.