The Capital Grille

FSR 50: Top 10 Upscale-Dining Chains

Impressive metrics, like Del Frisco’s $13.8 million average unit volume, suggest upscale dining’s rebound from the recession may be real.

Upscale dining, characterized primarily by dinner-focused concepts with extensive beverage programs and check averages above $50, was battered by the recession's money-saving realities. But things are finally looking up for the restaurant industry's upscale-dining stalwarts—with sales growth and unit growth in 2012 among most of the segment's major players.

The category was hard hit during the recession because it suffered from the double impact of falling corporate expense accounts and tightening consumer wallets. Now, upscale-dining's leaders are enjoying an upswing thanks to the economic recovery that has modestly resurrected business spending and unleashed pent-up demand from diners eager to treat themselves.

The top 10 players averaged a 5.4 percent jump in sales led by a trio of chains recording double-digit sales increases: Texas de Brazil tallied an impressive 19.4 percent spike; The Capital Grille boasted a strong 14.2 percent uptick; and Del Frisco's accomplished an 11.9 percent growth in year-over-year revenues.

Bellwether Food Group's Jon Jameson, however, cautions that the cheery numbers can be misleading. He prefers to think of upscale dining as rebounding rather than thriving.

Company Name 2012 U.S. Sales ($000) 2011 U.S. Sales ($000) % Change 2012 U.S. Units 2011 U.S. Units % Change 2012 AUV ($000)
Del Frisco's Steak House 124,692 111,387 11.9 10 9 11.1 13,800
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse 252,000 255,000 -1.2 65 64 1.6 3,929
Fogo de Chao 150,000* 137,000* 9.5 19 17 11.8 8,350*
Melting Pot 224,735 227,662 -1.3 135 137 -1.5 1,665
Morton's The Steakhouse 265,000* 277,488 4.5 65 72 -9.7 3,875*
Palm Restaurant 121,000* 120,000* 0.8 27 28 -3.6 4,400*
Ruth's Chris Steak House 510,000* 484,200 5.3 119 117 1.7 4,670
Shula's Steak House 119,000* 119,000* 0.0 31 31 0.0 3,850*
Texas de Brazil Churrascaria 172,000* 144,000* 19.4 23 21 9.5 7,850*
The Capital Grille 316,200 276,800 14.2 48 45 6.7 6,800

*Technomic estimate / Source: 2013 Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report

Ruth's Chris Steak House

WINTER PARK, FL Ended 2012 with 11 consecutive quarters of same-store sales increases.

The Capital Grille

ORLANDO Recent restaurant openings include Atlanta, Fort Worth, and Orlando.

Morton's The Steakhouse

CHICAGO The legendary steakhouse chain celebrates its 35th year in 2013.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar

NEWPORT BEACH, CA The annual Fleming's 100—a collection of 100 wines by the glass—remains an inventive beverage offering.

Melting Pot

TAMPA, FL Recently launched a revamped menu allowing guests to control and customize their fondue dining experience.

Texas de Brazil Churrascaria

DALLAS Opening this year in Birmingham, Alabama; Columbus, Ohio; Houston; Pittsburgh; and four units in New York state.

Fogo de Chao

DALLAS Expanding in 2013 with new spots in New York City; Rosemont, Illinois; and San Diego.

Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House

SOUTHLAKE, TX Experienced a nearly 12 percent sales gain driven by a 6.6 percent increase in comparable restaurant sales.

Palm Restaurant

WASHINGTON Modern Power Lunch—a three-course meal for $25.90—aims to attract lunch traffic.

Shula's Steak House

FT LAUDERDALE, FL Shula's patriarch Don Shula was presented the Lamar Hunt Award for Professional Football in March.

"Many of these concepts were the hardest hit during the economic downturn, so they're facing easier comps to roll over," he notes.

Even so, optimism is carrying the day at many of upscale dining's corporate headquarters.

Texas de Brazil director of marketing, Candyce Hedlund, credits strategic site selection and a festive dining experience with driving the Dallas-based chain's list-leading sales gains.

Texas de Brazil has opened many of its newest outlets in retail or mixed-use developments, which Hedlund says allows the concept to capitalize on foot traffic and greater visibility. Additionally, the Brazilian steakhouse's interactive service, which is characterized by wandering meat carvers and vibrant interiors, continues boosting the concept's appeal as a special-occasion destination, while its fixed-price menu provides bang-for-the-buck value.

"People are directing their dollars to where they can get the most for their money, and at Texas de Brazil our guests can get as much out of the experience as they want," Hedlund says.

Other upscale-dining players are seeing high returns as well.

Though claiming only 10 units in 2012, one more than its 2009 tally, Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House continues capturing the attention of its competitors with a category-leading average unit volume (AUV) of $13.8 million. Del Frisco's has distinguished itself with so-called "swarming service," where customers are served simultaneously by multiple servers, and a top-flight beverage program that is highlighted by hand-shaken martinis and crafted cocktails.

"We believe there are significant opportunities to grow our business, strengthen our competitive position, and continue to enhance and evolve," Del Frisco's Restaurant Group CEO Mark Mednansky projects in the company's 2012 annual report.

Among upscale dining's heaviest hitters, Morton's raises an element of concern. The Chicago-based chain, a longstanding reputable and successful operation, closed nearly 10 percent of its units—dropping from 72 to 65 restaurants—and saw a corresponding 4.5 percent drop in sales.

"Morton's has a lot of locations that are tucked away, including some in office buildings, and these [obscure locations] might have put them out of mind for some," Jameson says.

Responding to the recession, many leading upscale-dining concepts developed ways to entice guest visits without the need to drop $100. Even promotional efforts that were once unheard of—like bundled packages, happy hours, and small plates—wiggled into The Capital Grille and Ruth's Chris.

Strategic as those efforts might have been, West says retaining the momentum generated over the last year largely hinges on the return of corporate expense accounts.

"Fine dining ebbs and flows with corporate America, and as expense accounts go up and down, so, too, does the traffic at fine-dining restaurants," he says.