Some of America's most-recognizable restaurants are finding a sweet spot with millennial families.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on the state of casual dining based on exclusive Market Force Information data. Check out the first article on First Watch’s rise to the top, and where the breakfast segment is headed.

In the past year or so, Red Robin’s turnaround has centered mainly on what’s happening behind the curtain. Staffing up underperforming restaurants. Improving turnover. Speeding ticket times, wait times, and lowering walkaways. But lately, the company has spoken at length about “recapturing the soul of the brand.” Crystalizing its message.

You could call this phase two of casual dining’s attempt to reenergize its base. First, evolve and regain operational ground; things like guest data and refinement, personalized marketing, loyalty, tech systems (get the tablets out of the back), and learning to cater to off-premises customers—something that wasn’t in the legacy segment’s DNA. Everything from packaging to logistics.

And now, with those changes well underway, it’s time to tell a new story.

What’s been interesting during this evolution is where the marketing has taken some of the country’s most recognizable restaurant chains. Red Robin called its goal, “memorable moments of connection.” It wants to create a fleet of “family friendly and playful restaurants.”


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In July, the company announced results form an internal “Full of Family” survey that outlined the chain’s blueprint for the future. It gave it a guidepost to do something quick-service chains couldn’t: Measure value by experience, not straight price. Yet also offer parents and children a place to connect that wouldn’t break the bank.

This really goes back to the earlier debate about millennials and how they fit into casual dining. Some pundits credit the generation for crippling traffic. But that’s turned out to be a bit of an overgeneralization. Millennials didn’t destroy classic restaurants; they forced them to pay closer attention to the value and service gaps forming between casual brands and emerging, local restaurants, as well as independents. Akin in some ways to how fast casual drove quality and brand improvements into quick service. The bar is higher and margin for error narrower.

In one example, it led to Chili’s trimming bloat in its menu in favor of focusing on core classics, prepared better, quicker, and more consistently. Chains like Olive Garden and Carrabba’s have found success triggering off-premises orders through families and groups that count value as something beyond speed. The Buy One Take One, and Carrabba’s Bring Homemade Home Event, for example. Maggiano’s does this, too.

And it turns the compass to a very specific customer group for casual dining to go after.

Red Robin’s survey found 70 percent of parents wish they had more time to connect with their children and 73 percent said they’d like more time to do so with their parents (that second part is probably more surprising).

A Platter Of Food Options At Bob Evans Restaurant

Bob Evans has been on a mission to recapture its core in recent months.

As Red Robin pointed out, today’s families are facing steep competition for attention, whether around the dinner table or beyond. While 75 percent of parents said they understand their child’s interests, 44 percent of children feel their parents don’t get social media. Another 40 percent said they don’t think parents understand today’s music or movies, and one third believe they don’t empathize with what it’s like to be a kid today.

Red Robin’s response to this, in addition to an “All the Fulls” campaign, was to host in-store events like Family Date Night and Kids Choice Day.

According to Black Box Intelligence, family dining, fine dining, and upscale casual turned in the best results in Q4 of 2019. After a tough 2017, the industry insights platform said family dining in particular has enjoyed a resurgence of late.

Last May, Dine Brands (Applebee’s and IHOP parent) CEO Stephen Joyce said, “I’d like to put to rest false news about the death of casual family dining and the abandonment by millennials of the categories.”

Despite headlines to the contrary, he said, not only have millennials failed to stymie Applebee’s progress, they’re actually driving its growth. About half of its guests are under the age of 34. “And the last time I looked, those are millennials,” Joyce said.

To Joyce’s comment, according to Applebee’s data, only 26.4 percent of the chain’s current traffic hails from Baby Boomers, the generation credited by many as Applebee’s saving grace. Twenty-nine percent are millennials, 28.3 percent Gen X, and 15 percent Gen Z.

So, here’s the sweet spot the biggest casual-dining brands find themselves chasing today: Family dining, but with a millennial and updated twist. According to the NPD group, millennials with kids increased their restaurant visits by 5 percent from 2017 to 2018.

“Millennials are getting older and raising families. Just like the generations that preceded they lead hectic and busy lives and time is a limited and precious commodity,” David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor, told QSR. “Going to a restaurant and letting someone else do the cooking for you is an easy way to save effort and time.”

Last year, a special report by Morning Consult for The New York Times found that about half of millennials were parents. Of those without children, 42 percent said they wanted them, 34 percent said they were unsure, and 24 percent said they did not want children.

Assuming those who want children eventually have them, an estimated seven out of 10 millennials will be parents in the future. Add others from the currently undecided group and that portion could move closer to eight or nine out of 10.

Millennial parents (with children under the age of 13) were twice as likely as older generational parents to report that they are eating out more now than they were a year ago. This translates to a 5 percent uptick, totaling some 2.8 billion restaurant visits in 2018.

This is a major deal for sit-down chains across America. But it has to be approached with care. Millennials with children under the age of 12 score higher on various “foodie” checkmarks than other groups. According to Kantar Consulting, 60 percent of these millennial parents prioritize buying high-quality food over other spending areas, compared to 53 percent of the general population. The gap is even more pronounced in terms of identity: 73 percent of young parents consider food/cooking to be a major part of who they are as people; it’s 59 percent for the overall population.

And here’s some more data fodder: NPD indicates that visits from this group are increasing in frequency. Millennial parents (with children under the age of 13) were twice as likely as older generational parents to report that they are eating out more now than they were a year ago. This translates to a 5 percent uptick, totaling some 2.8 billion restaurant visits in 2018.

The winning formula, it appears, is high-quality food presented in a convenient format. And that doesn’t need to be restricted to just speed, delivery, or fast food. It’s something casual-dining brands can deliver on, while also throwing experience into the mix in ways counter-service operations couldn’t. Yet, as always, it’s going to start and end with consistency, quality, and service, and standing for something people can latch onto. Without those values, there is no story to tell for iconic restaurants trying to appeal to new generations.

Bob Evans’ CMO Bob Holtcamp previously told FSR he believes the millennial spending base has proven more practical than past generations. They want entertainment through restaurant occasions. That wasn’t so much the case with Baby Boomers.

“We’re trading guests with Applebee’s and Chili’s and Olive Garden just as much as we are with Cracker Barrel and Denny’s or IHOP,” he said. “That’s an interesting opportunity for anyone in family dining is to look at that and decide how are you going to ensure that you get more of those family occasions, and it’s a great challenge, and one that I believe Bob Evans is positioned best to achieve.”

As a reminder, Market Force Information’s annual casual-dining study surveyed 6,598 U.S. customers on their eating habits, brand preference, visit frequency, brand engagement, customer experience, meal delivery, and social media usage.

Red Robin is trying to reach young families. And that’s something other casual brands can learn from.

The family opportunity emerges

As you can see below, family and friends top the list for why customers are eating at general menu casual-dining chains. You can even combine categories one, three, and four if you want to slot the “family dining” construct. Either way, there’s a significant gap between general family meals and everything else.

Market Force Information Graph

Also, it’s worth noting that 83 percent of people have eaten at one of these chains in the past 90 days. The guests are out there. The reality today, however, is that in a lower-traffic dynamic stealing share might be as important as inspiring new visits.

Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a ton of room for mistakes. Market Force’s data showed that nearly one in five people were dissatisfied with their visit, and nearly one in four said they would not recommend the restaurant.

The chart below speaks to something all operators preach, but it stands the test of time nonetheless.

Market Force Information Graph

A dive into the brands

To the question, “which of the following general menu casual-dining chain restaurants have you visited most recently,” Applebee’s jumped to No. 1. It’s important to factor in the fact that Applebee’s and Chili’s, the No. 1 and No. 2 chains, have the most units on this list at 1,667 and 1,240, respectively. Although, Buffalo Wild Wings is above the 1,000-store mark and falls below Red Robin and Cracker Barrel, which have 556 and 660 restaurants, respectively. So, size isn’t necessarily the end all here. It’s just something that should be considered.

  • Applebee’s: 15 percent
  • Chili’s: 13 percent
  • Red Robin: 9 percent
  • Cracker Barrel: 8 percent
  • Buffalo Wild Wings: 7 percent
  • Cheesecake Factory: 5 percent
  • Ruby Tuesday: 4 percent
  • BJ’s Restaurants: 4 percent
  • TGI Fridays: 4 percent
  • Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen: 3 percent

Generally speaking, this set didn’t return high numbers for first-time visitors. Another reason it’s so critical to steal share in casual dining. Also, these brands have been around for quite some time. They’re not exactly upstarts. But of those, BJ’s reigned. Here’s a look at how BJ’s has stayed true to its core as it tries to become “the best casual-dining concept ever,” as it often says.

Market Force Information Graph

Cracker Barrel shined in one of Market Force’s most-notable data points: Experience and loyalty. That’s not overly surprising considering Cracker Barrel’s unique brand proposition.

Market Force Information Graph

However, it’s a strength that has proven critical to guard and nurture consistently. If you look back to 2018, the chain was struggling with guest counts because it slipped on some of its vital traits—value, service, hospitality, and menu innovation. Guests were unforgiving. Cracker Barrel has done a great job, though, moving this narrative in the other direction over the last few quarters thanks to daily deals, a focus on fried chicken, and getting back to its service roots. It also recently bought a fast casual, Maple Street Biscuit Company, and invested in eatertainment up-and-comer Punch Bowl Social.

In terms of the category overall, Cracker Barrel led Market Force’s rankings.

Market Force Information Graph

Let’s talk about guest satisfaction

Market Force asked the question, “thinking about your most recent visits to this general menu restaurant, please rate the following where 1 equals not satisfied and 5 equals very satisfied.” This is a telling result because, at the end of the day, no matter how many tech-centric changes flood the category, it’s always going to come down to the staples in full service.

  • Friendly service: 49 percent
  • Clean interior/exterior: 46 percent
  • Good variety in menu options: 44 percent
  • Inviting atmosphere: 37 percent
  • Good value for money: 33 percent
  • High-quality food: 32 percent
  • Fast service: 30 percent
  • Sensitive to food allergies: 29 percent
  • Good specials/promotions/coupons available: 28 percent
  • Healthy food choices: 24 percent
  • Was more of an experience than just a meal transaction 18 percent

Market Force noted that with the latter three categories, customers tend to hold back the most on giving top-box ratings.

How it pans out for these general menu brands.

Market Force Information Graph

A look across the board:

Market Force Information GraphMarket Force Information Graph

The ability to solve problems

Per Market Force, less than one in 10 guests experienced a problem dining at these brands. And about one in four chose to keep the issue to themselves. But of those who did speak out, here’s how they went about it:

  • Talked to a staff member at the location: 65 percent
  • Nothing: 24 percent
  • Completed an online survey: 10 percent
  • Wrote a negative comment on a special media website or app, like Facebook or TripAdvisor: 6 percent
  • Other: 4 percent
  • Contacted the brand’s call center: 3 percent
  • Wrote a negative tweet referring to the brand or location: 1 percent

What are people complaining about? Pretty interesting the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 here.

Market Force Information Graph

BJ’s also performed well with the amount of problems. It did a good job solving them as well. So did Darden-run Cheddar’s.

Market Force Information Graph

Talking about delivery

In this category, nearly one in five guests said they have used delivery.

How it broke down:

  • DoorDash: 37 percent
  • GrubHub: 18 percent
  • UberEats: 18 percent
  • The restaurant’s own delivery service: 10 percent
  • Postmates: 7 percent

More than one in four customers said they were dissatisfied with the speed of service and nearly one in three said they were not likely to use delivery again. That’s a pretty robust number. There’s opportunity in the gap, however, for the brands that embrace it and invest in experience.

By chain, some interesting trends emerge, too.

Market Force Information Graph

Getting social

We know Yelp and other review sites are critical for local establishments. And for casual chains? Market Force found that about one in six guests reviewed general menu restaurants before their visit.

  • BJ’s: 24.1 percent viewed social media prior to visit
  • TGI Fridays: 19.5 percent
  • Cheesecake Factory: 18.4 percent
  • Buffalo Wild Wings: 16.3 percent
  • Red Robin: 15.2 percent
  • Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen: 15 percent
  • Cracker Barrel: 14.7 percent
  • Applebee’s: 14.2 percent
  • Chili’s: 12.6 percent
  • Ruby Tuesday: 12.1 percent

It really can’t be underrated how important it is for large chain to have local, well-run, on-brand, and attentive social pages for every restaurant.

And here’s a look at which platforms rule the space.

Market Force Information Graph

Market Force asked diners about their app awareness with particular brands. More than half said they didn’t know if the restaurant had one or not, showcasing some whitespace for legacy chains.

Only 35 percent said they knew a specific brand did. Of those, 61 percent said they actually downloaded the app. Fifty-nine percent said they had no idea. Just 6 percent said no, they were sure there was no app (even if there was).

What were they using it for?

  • Participate in the restaurant’s loyalty/rewards program: 58 percent
  • Find discounts or promotions: 40 percent
  • View the menu: 34 percent
  • Place an order: 23 percent
  • Pay for an order: 23 percent
  • Get restaurant updates (menu changes, etc.): 19 percent
  • Track an order: 11 percent
  • Make a reservation: 10 percent
  • Find location: 8 percent
  • Read reviews: 5 percent
  • Get nutritional information: 5 percent
  • Get directions: 3 percent
  • Buy gift cards: 1 percent

BJ’s had a good showing once again.

Market Force Information Graph

Sum it up

From Market Force’s survey, it’s clear the following drive satisfaction in casual dining. None of these should shock anybody, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be circled on every restaurant’s whiteboard: Good value for money; high-quality food; friendly service; fast service; good variety in menu options; clean interior/exterior; and was more of an experience than just a meal transition.

Coming up next time, we’ll explore the Italian category, and see where Olive Garden, Maggiano’s, and Carrabba’s stack up.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Consumer Trends, Feature, Applebee's, BJ's Restaurants, Chili's, Cracker Barrel, Red Robin, T.G.I. Friday's, The Cheesecake Factory