Influenced by build-your-own menus, full-service chains are finding ways to attract diners with options for smaller portions, shared dishes, and customized combinations.

Customer choice has become the calling card for menus among full-service chains as they take note of the success enjoyed by fast-casual concepts. Now that diners are accustomed to designing their way to countless versions of burritos, burgers, and other fast-casual favorites, savvy full-service chains are creating menus that allow some of this build-your-own freedom. In fact, in select settings, diners can even choose the dining experience they want.

“Our restaurants have showcase bars for guests to enjoy casual, quick bites and drinks, plus full dining rooms and patios,” Scott Schmidt, COO at the Tavern Restaurant Group, explains. The Cincinnati group includes 12 units of The Pub plus the boutique brands of deSha’s and Nicholson’s. “Casual dining needs to do what fast casual can’t do. That’s the battle. We can’t win on value and speed, so we have to highlight the hospitality and offer a range of dining experiences.”

Jana Mann, senior director of MenuTrends at Datassential, a Chicago-based research firm, has been tracking a greater range of dining experiences that have manifested on full-service dining menus. Customization in full-service chains falls in line with a trend she identifies as Morphing Menus, which she cites in a 2014 report: Trends Impacting Foodservice.

From mix-and-match sampler plates to build-your-own burgers, customization is taking different forms in the various segments of full-service dining, but it clearly is making a mark on chain menus.

All in the Family

Family dining still has the corner on full-plate breakfasts, and many operators are finding ways to make those plates even fuller.

For IHOP, customization comes in the form of piled-on pancakes that entice diners with blueberries, cannoli filling, jelly, fresh banana slices, or a side of bacon and eggs. At Denny’s, build-your-own burgers, Grand Slam breakfast platters, and French Toast as an entrée bring customization to the menu, while a flexible pricing strategy has helped the chain weather the tough economy.


Applebee's Take Two: Blackened Sirloin with wedge salad.

“Our $2-4-6-8 Value Menu developed out of research we did in 2010, which showed we needed to make the brand more affordable for working-class diners and everyone struggling through the recession and post-recession,” recalls John Dillon, Denny’s vice president of marketing.

Dillon explains that, as an all-day diner, Denny’s value menu builds brand strength with options that address all day- parts at multiple price points, with 16 total items available at all times. Customers can add a $2 side stack of pancakes to a T-bone dinner or create a meal from the list.

“The value menu communicates choice to guests, but it’s not too complex for operational efficiencies,” says Dillon. “We made sure these items were margin-favorable, consumer-friendly, and profitable.”

Other family-dining chains have focused on group-friendly mix-and-match snack samplers to create a party atmosphere at the table. Friendly’s entices families with Munchie Mania, a choice of three sharable appetizers from an array of nine, including selections like Loaded Waffle Fries, Kickin’ Buffalo Chicken Tenders, and Mini Mozzarella Sticks.

Keeping Customization Casual

Casual-dining chains have built up the top of the menu as a way to offer more choice and create dining experiences for shared plates that limited-service restaurants can’t offer.

“We identified small plates as a trend to watch back in 2004,” Datassential’s Mann explains. “The idea of shared portions has shifted how food is served and eaten. The continual proliferation of small plates has redefined the traditional categories on menus [beyond] appetizers, entrées, sides, etc.”

From tapas to snacks and small plates, these menu sections have evolved over the past decade as operators have struggled to find the right recipe that Dillon describes as part profitability, part consumer choice, and part operational ease.

At Romano’s Macaroni Grill, options for small plates, once called Italian Tapas, are now called Antipasti and include everything from authentic choices like bruschetta to more contemporary offerings, like toasted Mac & Cheese Bites made fancy with truffle dip. The dishes come in varied sizes and price points: The Brick-Oven Olives features Mediterranean olives, Parmesan cheese, and Mediterranean panur, while the Blackboard Soup changes daily and could be paired with Zucchini Fritti for a quick meal.


Applebee's Take Two: blackened sirloin with wedge salad

“Modern menus feature new section headers, vivid descriptors, pictures, and non-paper mediums like chalkboards and tablets,” says Mann.

At Applebee’s, menu sections focus on size, price, and customization, with newer headings such as 2 for $20, Lunch Combos, Have it All, and Take Two—the latter being an offer that allows diners to pick two half-size entrées.

Upscale Casual Ups the Ante

The better-burger category has had a direct effect on pub concepts, leading to an increase in burger-building options and more upscale gastropubs.

A year ago, the Tavern Restaurant Group (TRG) tested a new burger program that moved the menu away from 16 signature burgers to a streamlined approach that lets customers pick a protein from a choice of Angus beef, ground turkey, ground lamb, a chicken breast fillet, or a black bean patty. Diners then pick from four finishing options, including the classic—served on a brioche bun with lettuce, tomato, and onion—or more gourmet variations with accents like maple pepper bacon, Cheddar cheese, and barbecue sauce.

“We needed a way to keep our burger at a $10 entry price point without compromising our high-quality Angus burger blend,” Schmidt says. The new strategy also facilitated a menu redesign, enabling TRG to replace its big book menu with a streamlined, two-sided stand-alone piece. “Our protein and style choices allow for some customer modification, while also increasing the speed of ordering and service,” Schmidt adds. “Our servers told us it used to take people forever to order, and we fixed that.”

TRG also changed appetizer offerings with the menu renovation, putting the focus on 18 sharable dishes ranging in price from $5.95 to $10.95. The appetizers-to-share option brought lower price points to the menu without carving into the restaurant’s bottom line, which could have occurred if TRG had instead introduced entrées at ultra-low prices that customers would come to expect forever.

“Guests can sample new tastes, have some variety, and not spend too much. It’s a fun way to dine, and another way to offer something that fast casual cannot,” says Schmidt.


Next up for TRG brands: more ways to customize at the bar. Schmidt reports great results with flights of beer, Scotch, and gin. Bar patrons choose their own spirits for flights, and whiskey tastings usually encourage people to explore sweet, smoky, or fruity flavors.

Fine and Flexible

In the fine-dining segment, where steakhouse chains rule, diners have always had a measure of choice in picking steak cuts, cooking levels, sauces, and à la carte sides. More recently, steakhouse operators have allowed for flexibility in price points, often in the form of reduced-portion bar menus and happy hours focusing on smaller plates paired with beverage specials.

At Morton’s The Steakhouse, bar bites start at an affordable price point of $7, yet include dishes that are very close to the traditional steakhouse experience. Iceberg Wedge Bites with Blue Cheese dressing are mini-versions of the classic steakhouse salad, while miniature prime cheeseburgers and petite filet mignon sandwiches give diners a smaller taste of Morton’s signature beef offerings.

Likewise, at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, a small plates menu includes sliced filet mignon with shiitake risotto, chili oil, and porcini butter drizzle. Braised Short Ribs are served boneless, with arugula, spinach, and natural au jus. The after 7 p.m. Bar la Carte menu includes prime steakhouse meatballs and filet mignon flatbread.

Smaller, less formal dishes like these can also attract new customers or help keep regulars interested, all of which can lead people back to the full-price steak dinners when more discretionary dollars are available.

Operators can’t attempt to be all things to all people, but for full-service restaurants to compete against the current love affair with fast casual, operators need to play to their strengths. “Know what you offer in terms of dining experiences and make the most of that,” Schmidt advises.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Menu Innovations