Bob Evans

Bob Evans is hoping to encourage its core audience of families and people over 40 to dine there more frequently.

Can Brunch Save Casual Dining?

Two major chains, Bob Evans and Maggiano’s Little Italy, recently introduced brunch service to jumpstart revenue and attract younger clientele.

Sales at 64 percent of casual dining chains in 2016 dipped, according to industry tracker TDn2k, heightened by a slew of competitors. That list includes fresh meals delivered to consumers’ homes, inexpensive prepared meals from supermarkets like Trader Joe’s, and fast casuals like Panera Bread. To jumpstart revenue and offer guests another reason to dine out, Bob Evans’s 532 locations and Maggiano’s Little Italy’s 52 outlets debuted a brunch menu in late February. 

Introducing brunch is aiming to accomplish several goals. For starters, to establish a separate mid-day menu, create some buzz at long-standing chains, encourage existing customers to dine out more often, and target a younger clientele.

John Fisher, Columbus, Ohio-based president of Bob Evans, says brunch fits squarely into its business plan to “contemporize home-style cooking for our core business.” He described brunch “as the hottest trend in food service, and we’re offering it, not just on weekends, but weekdays.”

Read about Bob Evans' recent sale.

At Maggiano’s Little Italy, Larry Konecny, its Dallas-based vice president or innovation and restaurant support, says Maggiano’s is all “about special occasions. When you look at brunch, it’s celebratory, indulgent, and gives you opportunities to try things you don’t typically make at home.” Moreover it’s a propitious meal to meet with friends and family.

When Maggiano’s tested the brunch menu, one guest wrote that millennials “invented” brunch and this new menu serves as a way to reach a younger audience. Brunch attracts people who “love breakfast and getting together at a relaxing time,” Konecny says.

Citing a fast-food competitor, Fisher gave McDonald’s kudos for “putting breakfast on top of people’s mind and triggering breakfast’s rebirth.”

"We’re trying to create a new segment where people consider brunch all day. We need to give people more reasons to try us." — John Fisher, Columbus, Ohio-based president of Bob Evans

Bob Evans is hoping to encourage its core audience of families and people over 40 to dine there more frequently and, like Maggiano’s, also attract millennials who gravitate to restaurants for brunch.

Fisher says the brand’s brunch menu highlights chicken and waffles, ham biscuit benedict, and candied bacon. But it also offers a green goddess salad to appeal to the guests that are fitness buffs and calorie-conscious.

Maggiano’s brunch menu consists of 12 items, including meatball benedict, crab cake benedict, smoked ham benedict, lemon ricotta pancakes, and crème bulee French toast. It takes some of its core items, like meatballs and crab cakes, and turns them into benedicts, incorporating them into its mid-day menu.

Guests who are fitness enthusiasts can customize their breakfast at Maggiano’s and ask for yogurt, for example, Konecny explains. Marathon runners aren’t likely to order the Italian American breakfast of eggs accompanied by sausage, bacon, and a piece of toast.

Fisher is quite explicit about what Bob Evans is trying to achieve with its new brunch menu. It’s “all about revenue generation. We’re trying to create a new segment where people consider brunch all day. We need to give people more reasons to try us,” he says.

Sluggish sales didn’t precipitate the new brunch menu at Maggiano’s, Konecny says. “Industry headwinds” didn’t drive it, he says. Instead his team of enterprising chefs considered what menu items would best appeal to guests, which motivated developing brunch more than focusing on revenue. 

Fisher acknowledged that Bob Evans previously served eggs benedict but eliminated it from the menu about five years ago. “We’re bringing it back, mostly because people love our biscuits. They’ve been clamoring for it,” he says.

To promote it, Bob Evans introduced a media blitz of TV and radio ads in the 250 markets it serves coupled with advertisements on Facebook. “We want to own it before the rest of the world gets into it,” he says.

At Maggiano’s, the marketing is more low key, with no print, TV or radio campaigns to launch it. Rather Konecny says the company is “leveraging its internal email data base and letting our loyal users know about it.”

Though brunch was traditionally a special meal offered only on weekends, making it available daily at Bob Evans enhances the size of the audience and boosts sales. “There’s no reason to just focus on weekends. We can make it available to people at work, or friends who want to try it during lunch,” Fisher says.

Previously, most Maggiano’s opened at 11 a.m. or noon for lunch, so opening for brunch at 10 and 11 a.m. is a subtle departure for them. At most Maggiano’s, five of the brunch items, including four of the benedicts are served Monday to Friday and the full complement is served on weekends. 

Offering brunch is a strategic move for Bob Evans and Maggiano’s to jumpstart sluggish revenue, says Kevin Moll, president of Denver-based Restaurant Consultants Inc. “Most operators are wise to explore every meal part, if possible,” he says. But to thrive both chains must market it as separate menu items, not an extension of preexisting ones, he advises.

Moll predicts that Maggiano’s will reap more mileage and success than Bob Evans will. “With Maggiano’s, it’s brilliant because it only offers lunch and dinner, so brunch is a clear new offering,” he said. Since Bob Evans already specializes in breakfast, it’s not really a differentiator, he adds.
Consultant Moll also thought both chains would have prospered by offering brunch weekends only. “When you sell brunch every day, it’s no longer special. If they’re selling it seven days a week, they’re going to have to make it very unique to have legs,” Moll says.