There are a lot of things that get under the skin of Legal Sea Foods president and CEO Roger Berkowitz, but one thing that bothers him almost daily is when his restaurant is called a chain.
“When you think of a chain, you don’t think of the best adjectives. You think of ‘cookie-cutter’ or ‘dumbed-down food,’ and that’s a far cry from what we do,” Berkowitz says. “Chain is an easy descriptor, but it doesn’t capture the full essence of who we are.”
In his mind, despite having 35 restaurants in his fleet, labeling the company a chain is bad for business. That’s why he commissioned an advertising campaign that debuted in August and highlighted why the moniker strikes him as an insult.
Chain restaurants have come under attack as Millennials make known their preferences for local, one-of-a-kind restaurants. Experts say the generational difference is vast, noting that Baby Boomers are content with chains, but the term has achieved such negative ubiquity among younger demographics that it limits how much chain restaurants appeal to consumers.
“When anything was written about us, it would always be qualified with the word chain,” Berkowitz says. “People would write phrases like, ‘They do some interesting things … for a chain.’ It seemed to be an anchor in defining who and what we were.”
The Chain Abnormality
Aaron Allen, a restaurant consultant out of Orlando, sees a movement of consumers who are migrating away from the casual-dining chains that reigned two or three decades ago.
“A chain carries a stigma now that it didn’t before,” he says. “It used to be that chains created predictability, and that was a good thing. Consider Starbucks: We want consistency and to know our drink will be the same no matter where we order. But restaurants like a TGI Fridays are predictable; it’s still state-of-the-art 1993, and nothing has really changed about it. That’s the part chains are trying to migrate away from.”
Recent developments in the casual-dining industry support Allen’s claim: TGI Fridays, in fact, initiated a brand refresh in June, abandoning the laminated menus in favor of a sleek hardcover menu and revitalizing its offerings to include hickory-smoked sea salt as a seasoning and more handcrafted cocktails. Olive Garden followed suit in July, introducing a new logo, a modern prototype design, tablet ordering, an updated website, and enhanced food.
A research paper released in 2011 by Randy Stein and T. Andrew Poehlman studied the anomaly between consumers’ supposed ambivalence toward chains and how they vote with their wallets. Stein and Poehlman found that “consumers explicitly prefer independent restaurants to chains,” and consumers called chains bland and sterile, but they also subtly preferred chains—often patronizing chain restaurants more than independents. The researchers suggested part of the disparity is psychological: There is a disassociation between what people say and what they do—and this creates a conundrum for restaurants and their marketing strategies.
Dean Small, founder and a managing partner with Synergy Restaurant Consultants, agrees, and suggests restaurant groups that want to distance themselves from the chain designation, should connect with the local community on an emotional level.
“You need to make it real and authentic,” he says. “It can’t be the same design package consumers would get in a location down the street. Focus on design strategies and the culinary freedoms of the staff, and consider what your commitment to local and sustainability is.”
Allen agrees that localization is key to combatting the negative stigma, singling out 22-unit Roy’s Restaurants. “Roy’s allows its chefs to differentiate menus based on local ingredients, creating a sense of place,” he explains. “They also have murals or photography from around the area, differentiating themselves with design and décor.”
While Boomers feel secure dealing with chains, Millennials are moving away from dining out at chain restaurants, Small says.
“Millennials like a lot more authenticity; they don’t think of chains as delivering an experience they want,” he says. “Legal Sea Foods does a very good job of creating an authentic experience, [despite] the fact it is a multi-unit operator, yet it still has regional differences in play where all units are different.”
Berkowitz says he wrestled with the adverse connotations of chains for years and, when he finally couldn’t stand it any longer, he told the company’s long-time advertising agency, DeVito/Verdi, he would be front-and-center for the campaign. The result was the series of sardonic ads showing the CEO and his distaste for the word.
“Now, we are better at communicating who we are to the public,” Berkowitz says. “We want to be thought of as a group of restaurants or family of restaurants. Each shares a DNA, but rather than producing identical twins, we are producing siblings and cousins.”