Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is salmon the new twofer?

Forget sliders, bundled meals and mini desserts. The hook for restaurant bargain hunters is being re-baited these days with lobster, crab and salmon.

Those are among the lures Ruby Tuesday is flycasting with its much-publicized new menu (the bill of fare landed lengthy features from The New York Times and AOL). The dinnerhouse chain added a lobster tail in late summer. Now it’s mixed the pricey protein into several dishes, including a classic surf and turf platter. Two tails share the plate with a seven-ounce sirloin, vegetables and a potato. This isn’t your two-dinners-for-$20 draw.

Nor is the new lump-meat crab cake, or the just-added Salmon Florentine platter. The chain is betting that a special-occasion dinner priced at an everyday rate—relatively speaking—will still be taken as a deal by consumers obsessed with economy.

It’s the credo being followed with considerable success by Panera Bread Co. Not coincidentally, the bakery-café chain has also used lobster as a draw, albeit a regional one. This summer units in the New England area offered a half-pound lobster salad sandwich for about $17 (at least in my area). CEO Ron Shaich explained at the time that the chain was focusing on the 90% of consumers who were employed, not the 10% that lost or couldn’t find a job.

Now, Shaich told investors last month, the chain is adding salmon, both as a sandwich and salad ingredient. He noted that the addition will boost profits while presenting customers with another high-quality choice.

Salmon is already on the menu of Panera’s arch-competitor (and Shaich’s former charge), the Au Bon Pain bakery-café chain. It recently added a sandwich of smoked salmon, egg and guacamole. Already on the menu was a breakfast sandwich of smoked salmon and wasabi, served on an onion dill bagel.

Touting quality in a pitch for deal hunters is a risky strategy, as Cheesecake Factory can attest. It’s a casual-dining leader in quality and portion size, yet it had to re-engineer the tome it calls a menu to include more straightforward bargains. Virtually every other casual chain has done the same, to varying degrees.

But there are signs the approach can work. Ruby Tuesday’s lobster tails, for instant, were generating 3% of a typical restaurant’s sales at the end of August, according to CEO Sandy Beall. That’s at a price falling between $17 and $19, he noted to financial analysts a few weeks ago.

He noted at the time that the chain’s emphasis on quality was helping to boost check averages, the Holy Grail for an industry limping through a steep drop off in customers.

Panera told the Wall Street Journal for a mid-August feature that its hefty lobster sandwich was selling well, but balked at disclosing the specifics.

Will it work? Well, there’s a reason chains have to give away new menu items to get them tasted. A quality item for a reasonable price has its appeal. But the absolute dollars are still going to be a yellow light for those of us who no longer find ourselves in a position to dine out regularly.

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