Friday, September 16, 2011

Blurring restaurant lines

You can make a strong argument that line-blurring has been the most successful restaurant strategy of the last 20 years. Without the daring to nudge a familiar type of restaurant into another category’s turf, we never would’ve had fast-casual, a blurring of the lines between fast-food and casual dining, or hybrids like burger joints run by celebrity chefs (think Daniel Boulud’s CBDB’s or Marcus Samuelsson’s Marc Burger).

Now two of the earliest and most successful proponents of line-blurring are smudging a different boundary.

By the industry’s standard definition, Mimi’s Café and Cracker Barrel fall into the category of family restaurants, or what were called coffee shops in the pre-Starbucks age. A key feature was serving breakfast, a rarity among full-service places. Indeed, a heavy morning clientele was one of their signatures. Ditto for selling more soft drinks than wine, beer or spirits. And their menus were as broad and mainstream as what we in the East would find at a classic diner.

But Mimi’s and Cracker Barrel never exactly fit the specs. Yeah, they do considerable breakfast business. But these aren’t your father’s Denny’s or Village Inn. Slip into a Mimi’s at lunch and you’ll find plenty of office workers, not families. And the menu is more ambitious than the roster for many upscale casual places.

Cracker Barrel also has that casual feel, and its reliance on a country-store schtick is reminiscent of the heavy-duty theming that’s common in casual dining (think Friday’s, Lone Star or Olive Garden).

Now those non-comformists are blurring the line again, this time by shifting into the pricing strata right below them. Both have just unveiled new lunch deals that rival the value and convenience afforded by fast-food outlets.

Cracker Barrel’s new offer is a line-up of daily specials that sell for $5.99 each. Consider for a moment that $5 is the going bargain rate for a sandwich at sub specialists like Subway. At Cracker Barrel you can pay just a buck more for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, a chicken pot pie, or a turkey platter with the usual trimmings.

Mimi’s is stressing speed of service along with the low prices of its midday options. It guarantees that its new Express Lunch service will take no more than 15 minutes. For $6.99, that gets the customer servings of soup and salad. For $1.50 more, they can get the soup or salad with half a sandwich. A soda adds just another $1 to the check.

Mimi’s may be venturing into fast-food territory, but it’s not dropping its competitive challenge to casual places. Also new on its menu is a takeout deal that might turn the heads of consumers who use casual restaurants’ curbside delivery services. Priced at $25 each, the meals are marketed as sufficient to feed a family of four. The options include such comfort favorites as pot roast, chicken parmigiana and turkey.

It’s also added a new Happy Hour deal: wine flights for $5.

Clearly the chalk marks between segments are still being smudged.

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