9 It was a fruitful year for Cracker Barrel, with revenues up 3.5 percent and AUVs enjoying a 2 percent boost. The comfort food chain was also busy at work diversifying its portfolio. Last fall, it acquired 33-unit Maple Street Biscuit Company with the intention of converting its seven Holler & Dash stores to the more established fast casual. Just before that deal, it had entered into a strategic partnership with up-and-coming Punch Bowl Social under a vision of scaling it beyond 100 domestic locations.
COVID-19: Cracker Barrel's promising relationship with Punch Bowl Social turned sour in the early days of the coronavirus. When the eatertainment concept defaulted on its loan following the closure of all 19 locations, Cracker Barrel demurred the option to cover the company's debt. Instead it partnered with DoorDash to bolster off-premises and also launched a program to donate meals to front-line healthcare workers. With a large volume of stores across the Southeast, Cracker Barrel benefited from those states' early reopenings though that good fortune could prove short-lived as new COVID-19 cases surge across the region.
10 The full-service seafood leader is nothing if not dogged in its efforts to evolve with the times. Unlike others in the category, it had embraced third-party delivery prior to COVID-19. It emphasized value with a seemingly bottomless barrel of promotions and specials (from Endless Shrimp to Create Your Own Ultimate Feast) but still took care to create a differentiated dine-in experience. Despite these efforts, Red Lobster struggled to woo younger consumers, as evidenced by declines in systemwide sales, AUV, and store count.
COVID-19: Calling upon the power of promos, Red Lobster has doubled down on the deals, offering competitively priced to-go specials tailored for family meals and date nights. It's also added an interactive element to at-home dining, thanks to recipe cards for variations on its Cheddar Bay Biscuits. As for giving back, the company partnered with the Napa Seafood Foundation to get meals to healthcare workers.
The Cheesecake Factory
11 The Cheesecake Factory puts all other FSR 50 brands to shame with an AUV surpassing $10 million—that's a $1.5 million buffer between the next most lucrative-per-unit restaurant. In 2019, it not only welcomed dozens of new Cheesecake Factory units into the fold, but it also acquired Fox Restaurant Concepts, with plans to aggressively grow North Italia and Flower Child. On the operational side, The Cheesecake Factory pursued on- and off-premises improvements through delivery and limited dine-in reservations, respectively.
COVID-19: The brand made headlines early in the pandemic when CEO David Overton wrote a letter explaining that its restaurants would not be paying rent. Shortly thereafter, it furloughed 41,000 employees. In June, as reopenings were under way, the chain temporarily shuttered 87 restaurants amid protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd.
12 Darden's second-largest concept may pull in less than half the revenue of Olive Garden, but LongHorn Steakhouse's star is on the rise with revenue and AUV growth that bests its big sister. The upward momentum has been largely credited to a simplified operating model that trimmed the menu, pushed offerings toward more premium cuts, and promoted upsell items. Looking ahead, disrupted meat supply chains due to COVID-19 could be an obstacle for it and other steakhouse concepts.
13 The largest burger restaurant in full service has undergone some soul searching, infusing the brand with fresh blood—including CEO Paul Murphy and new members to the board of directors—while also getting back to its values by trimming the menu and accelerating a new hospitality model called the Total Guest Experience. In a strange way, the coronavirus presented an opportunity for Red Robin to go head-to-head with the better-burger fast-casual segment that has been swiping business away for nearly a decade.
14 Things weren't going so well for the buffet-centric Southeast chain even before the pandemic; systemwide sales, AUV, and unit count slipped in 2019. But now as competitors like Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes go under, Golden Corral is considering how it could reopen without the buffet element.
15 Like Subway on the quick-service side, Waffle House makes its fortunes not through steep checks but rather ubiquity. Though the chain closed a few odd stores in 2019, its system of 1,900 stores remains vast. Waffle House has long prided itself on keeping the doors open during adverse conditions, like natural disasters, but in April it chose Postmates as its first delivery partner.
16 Last year was relatively uneventful yet overall positive for BJ's Restaurant, however, since the coronavirus it's been nothing short of a rollercoaster. Even though off-premises orders increased, overall sales declined, prompting the brand to lay off 16,000 workers, furlough 200 managers and 40 support center employees, and, like The Cheesecake Factory, not pay rent. Help came in the form of a $70 million investment from Panera founder Ron Shaich in May. Reopened restaurants further brightened the business without dampening off-premises sales.
17 Despite a less-than-stellar 2019, TGI Fridays kicked off the new year with a bombshell revelation. Under a $380 million deal with Allegro Merger Corp., the company would go public at a time when many chains were retreating to the private sector. But the deal was not to be; in April, citing the weak market and uncertain conditions brought on by the coronavirus, both parties opted to drop the planned merger.
18 Following the lead of BWW, Hooters entered the sports-betting arena earlier this year through a partnership with KonekTV in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. During COVID-19 dine-in restrictions, the brand introduced curbside pickup service nationwide.
19 It was a solid year for the Pan-Asian cuisine leader with steady, positive growth. In February, it introduced P.F. Chang's To Go in Chicago, which, while not the original intent, became something of a dry run for the greater brand as its expansive dine-in operations were forced to pivot to off-premises just a month later.