Chain restau­rants re­act to lat­est trends

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - To learn more, visit Con­sumerRe­ports.org.

Eat­ing out isn’t just for spe­cial oc­ca­sions any­more; it’s now the Amer­i­can way of life. We’ll spend an es­ti­mated $720 bil­lion at restau­rants this year, up 19 per­cent from 2012.

Con­sumer Re­ports re­cently con­ducted a sur­vey that rep­re­sents the largest sit-down res­tau­rant rat­ings ever re­ported by the Con­sumer Re­ports Na­tional Re­search Cen­ter. The sur­vey re­flects the ex­pe­ri­ences of 68,950 sub­scribers who fre­quented a record 238 res­tau­rant chains and had 170,838 meals.

Con­sumer Re­ports found that, to at­tract and keep more cus­tomers, food es­tab­lish­ments are try­ing to evolve. It found four ma­jor trends that are shap­ing to­day’s chain-res­tau­rant land­scape.

1. Cui­sine gets a con­science. Con­sumers are in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in find­ing op­tions that are healthy -- not just for them­selves but for the en­vi­ron­ment. Sixty-eight per­cent of con­sumers polled by the Na­tional Res­tau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion as part of its 2016 In­dus­try Fore­cast said they’re more likely to go to a res­tau­rant that of­fers lo­cally sourced food, and 60 per­cent said they pre­fer those that en­gage in en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious prac­tices, such as wa­ter con­ser­va­tion and re­cy­cling. De­spite the costs, some ca­sual din­ing chains are start­ing to an­swer the call.

2. The ta­ble be­comes to-go. Full-ser­vice eater­ies are fac­ing in­creased com­pe­ti­tion from chains that of­fer only lim­ited ser­vice, such as Pan­era Bread and Chipo­tle Mex­i­can Grill, a

cat­e­gory not cov­ered in the sur­vey. Adding tech to the trend, many full-ser­vice chains are mak­ing it eas­ier for take­out cus­tomers by ac­cept­ing on­line and mo­bile or­ders and al­low­ing them to pay elec­tron­i­cally in ad­vance; some also pro­vide lo­cal home de­liv­ery and curb­side pickup. With Out­back Steak­house, for in­stance, you place an on­line or­der, down to the small­est de­tails, such as whether you want to skip the but­ter or add ex­tra cheese, set a pickup time and your meal is ready in as lit­tle as 20 min­utes.

3. Cu­rios­ity turns culi­nary. Con­sumers are ea­ger to try in­no­va­tive fare that they can’t repli­cate at home, says An­nika Stens­son, di­rec­tor of re­search com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Na­tional Res­tau­rant As­so­ci­a­tion. Con­sumer Re­ports’ sur­vey shows that con­sumers are giv­ing a thumbs-up to un­con­ven­tional chains -- for starters, HuHot Mon­go­lian Grill, where guests can imag­i­na­tively mix and match pro­tein sources with var­i­ous types of noo­dles, rice, veg­eta­bles and sauces, and The Melt­ing Pot, which spe­cial­izes in fon­due.

4. Waits start to shrink. Con­sumer Re­ports found that some ca­sual chains such as Texas Road­house are now en­cour­ag­ing call-ahead seat­ing, which gets your name on the wait list be­fore you’ve even left home rather than after you ar­rive. Carrabba’s Ital­ian Grill and Out­back Steak­house in­tro­duced a new twist called Click-Thru Seat­ing that al­lows you to mon­i­tor real-time seat­ing avail­abil­ity at your lo­cal res­tau­rant by com­puter or smart­phone and put your name on the wait list for now or later.

As for wait­ing for your food, that, too, may change be­cause sev­eral chains have started em­ploy­ing tech­nol­ogy to speed up ser­vice. Ta­bles at Chili’s are equipped with tablet com­put­ers that let guests pe­ruse menu items and spe­cials, as well as or­der when­ever the crav­ing strikes and pay when they choose.

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