Popular restaurants blending old rules of fast, casual, fancy

Orlando SentinelJune 27, 2013 

— Mike Parson didn’t feel as if he were in a fast-food joint at a newly renovated Wendy’s 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.

That’s exactly what Wendy’s was aiming for with its design in the restaurant, which will be used in new and remodeled restaurants from now on.

“We’re moving a little bit toward the fast-casual,” said Craig Madanick, a Wendy’s field-marketing manager. “We feel it’s 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.

“They’re trying to find all kinds of ways to drive visits,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for industry researchers NPD Group.

Changes at Wendy’s are happening even as Panera Bread has turned to one of fast food’s 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. Ruth’s Chris Steak House, owned by Ruth’s 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 Ruth’s Chris regulars,” CEO Mike O’Donnell 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 Friday’s. So, as casual-dining restaurants have lost ground to their quicker, cheaper competitors, some are saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Red Lobster is testing Seaside Express, a pay-at-the-counter lunchtime option. Applebee’s is trying a similar concept. The lunchtime options are quicker, and there’s no obligation to tip.

Even successful fast-casual restaurants are borrowing from other categories – and it’s boosting the bottom line.

Panera Bread long took the view that “we will never have a drive-through; we don’t 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.”

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