Chain restaurants react to latest trends
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.