ORLANDO, FLA — Mike Parson didnt feel as if he were in a fast-food joint at a newly renovated Wendys with a lounge, faux fireplace, Wi-Fi and separate counters for orders and pickup.
It feels more like a hangout, said Parson, 22, a University of Central Florida student.
Thats exactly what Wendys was aiming for with its design in the restaurant, which will be used in new and remodeled restaurants from now on.
Were moving a little bit toward the fast-casual, said Craig Madanick, a Wendys field-marketing manager. We feel its necessary for us to stay competitive and gain the upper edge to offer a new environment to our consumers.
America once had very specific kinds of restaurants. There was fast food for a quick bite, casual dining for a fun night out, and fine dining for that really special occasion. But now those lines are getting fuzzier.
As they struggled to lure more customers during the recession, some chains began looking to broaden their appeal.
Theyre trying to find all kinds of ways to drive visits, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for industry researchers NPD Group.
Changes at Wendys are happening even as Panera Bread has turned to one of fast foods standard features: the drive-through lane. Red Lobster is trying pay-at-the-counter service.
And fine-dining restaurants have become more casual, Riggs said, and more focused on their bar business.
The Melting Pot is encouraging fondue diners to come in for something simpler than its elaborate four-course meal. Ruths Chris Steak House, owned by Ruths Hospitality Group, introduced a Sizzle, Swizzle, Swirl Happy Hour bar menu with less expensive food.
The goal is to turn many first-time, often younger, guests into Ruths Chris regulars, CEO Mike ODonnell told analysts last month.
Two new categories have evolved and flourished the past few years: fast casual and polished casual. Fast-casual restaurants such as Panera Bread are a step up from fast food and a tad more expensive. Customers order and pay at a counter, but the food tends to be fresher and more sophisticated.
Polished-casual restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory, meanwhile, offer more contemporary fare than a typical TGI Fridays. So, as casual-dining restaurants have lost ground to their quicker, cheaper competitors, some are saying, If you cant beat em, join em.
Red Lobster is testing Seaside Express, a pay-at-the-counter lunchtime option. Applebees is trying a similar concept. The lunchtime options are quicker, and theres no obligation to tip.
Even successful fast-casual restaurants are borrowing from other categories and its boosting the bottom line.
Panera Bread long took the view that we will never have a drive-through; we dont want to be portrayed or thought of as a fast-food type of operation, said Gavin Ford, who owns Central Florida Panera franchises.
But that has changed. His cafes with drive-through lanes have seen sales jump by as much as 35 percent, Ford said.
Customers want more choices, more options, he said. People are just more demanding these days.