TGI Fridays is making it easier to pay than ever.

TGI Fridays

Ribs for an emoji? It's that simple at TGI Fridays these days.

How TGI Fridays is Changing the Casual Dining Game

Friday has been a model of innovation in a complicated and challenging sector of foodservice.

One of the widespread criticisms of casual dining—a segment that just experienced a 4 percent sales drop in February—is an antiquated and rigid approach to business. Nobody will accuse TGI Fridays of that anytime soon.

The iconic chain, with more than 500 locations nationwide, has rolled out one innovative idea after the other in recent months. To start, on Monday, Fridays revealed its March Madness promotion. Fans who tweet a basketball emoji at the brand’s account during select dates will receive a coupon for $10 ribs. That’s not a bad payoff for 12 seconds of effort. Need more incentive? If you go into the restaurant and actually redeem the promotion, Fridays will toss in a BOGO burger coupon.

The March Madness deal is taking place from March 16—19 and only includes the “Tournament Baby Back Ribs” and “Tournament Jack Daniel’s Ribs.” The BOGO Burger Deal can be redeemed March 23—27. Both of these deals are valid from online ordering.

Why Fridays would do this could be twofold. The first being that getting a diner through the door during the NCAA Tournament is 98 percent of the battle. If you assume a guest will glue themselves to a booth for three hours, then a $10 menu gift isn’t a tough compromise. This promotion could be Fridays’ ticket to joining the Big Dance’s deep consumer pool, long relegated to the sports bars and wing joints of the world. And there’s always the idea of inspiring loyalty and encouraging repeat visits.

As for this wave of innovation, Fridays launched this deal on the heels of its Endless Happy Hour in New York City, which celebrated the permanent return of Endless Apps and a new Burger Bar. Removing the limited-time fine print was done with the social dynamic in mind as well.

“TGI Fridays provides the ultimate social bar vibe where our guests can unwind and reconnect over an array of Endless appetizers or one of our new all-natural, custom-cooked burgers,” said Matt Durbin, TGI Fridays vice president, marketing and concept development, in a release.

Again, on the surface, it’s hard to envision the ROI on a $10 deal that gives away an unlimited amount of appetizers (typically costing nearly that for one choice), paying off. But, as the trend suggests, the brand is looking to separate itself by fostering a “stay-a-while” vibe. If unlimited mozzarella sticks and boneless Buffalo wings means staying two hours instead of 30 minutes, the alcohol sales alone will likely crush the difference.

In February, just in time for Valentine’s Day, Friday announced it had signed up to become the first national casual dinning chain to join OpenTable. At the end of January, the chain also revealed it was accepting orders via Twitter—also a first for a national bar and grill.

"Our digital offerings allow us to give the same personalized service to guests online as we would in the restaurant or across the Fridays bar," said Sherif Mityas, vice president, strategy and brand initiatives at TGI Fridays, in the release. "Being the first national bar and grill to accept orders on Twitter is just the beginning of how guests will see us cater to their needs using technology."

That promotion came right before the Super Bowl as Fridays offered an appetizer for a penny to anyone who tweeted a football emoji at the account.

What Fridays is doing here, it appears, is leveraging its network through user connections, and fandom. Build a community and the interactions (people visiting the restaurant) will follow.

One more sign of Fridays’ ability to understand connections: In December, they partnered with FandangoNOW to offer dinner and a movie. For every online order of $25 or more, guests received a free movie rental.

It will be interesting to see how the financials, especially long term, reflect Fridays commitment to engagement. Undeniably, the chain has paid great attention to establishing itself as a destination, both digitally and in-store, which is a critical challenge in this sector. It has also provided incentives and complements to its offerings, instead of substitutes—a common problem for multi-unit operators and a reason loyal guests flock to competitors.

In the future, could this be a lesson for how casual brands can navigate this difficult time? Only time will tell.