Marketing to Moms: The Changing Restaurant Environment

July 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

The once robust casual dining restaurant sector that seemed to survive on new suburban growth and rising wealth has been on a diet of declining sales recently.

Working women, two-income households and the careers of Baby Boomers  were the foundation for the exuberant growth of casual dining we have experienced in the United States for the past 35 years.  The restaurant names that created the casual dining category are well known – Red Lobster, T.G.I. Friday’s and Steak & Ale.

As women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers, eating out was seen as a way to unwind and socialize.  Two-income households caused many families to “trade up” out of fast food and family restaurants.  Then, as these women started families and moved to the suburbs, eating out was a way to have a lunch or night out with friends, or to provide a decent meal for the children between childcare, commutes, soccer and bedtime.  In essence, eating out moved from a luxury to a pleasurable escape to a necessity.

But what is going on in the industry now? Same store sales for casual dining have been down much longer than this recessionary period.  It begs the question if we are in for a sea change in the way America eats.  And what is the role of the Mom in this new restaurant landscape?

Some of the signs of change have been on the horizon for a while.

Dining Boredom.  There are two generations of Americans that have grown up with casual dining, and a type of commodity boredom has set in.  Every restaurant has their version of chicken tenders, gigantic salads, sliders and brownie dessert.  All set in their version of neighborhood themes.  The product of this third generation – the Millennials – are looking for a different type of experience and more sophisticated foods.  Along with their parents, they have acquired a food vocabulary that includes lattes, tapas, tiramisu and free-range.

Food Retailer Competition. In an effort to compete with restaurants, food retailers have increasingly risen to the occasion with food bars, lavish delis and more trendy prepared entrees.  Competition for the 4:00 What’s For Dinner?  Includes take-out from Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Kroger.

Change in Retail Shopping Venues. The casual dining restaurants have been pinned to shopping malls in the suburbs, and those malls are aging, being replaced with smaller, open air lifestyle centers.  New lifestyle centers cater to those begging  for the newest restaurant experience.

The Kid Equation. The children of today are not the same old “burgers and chicken fingers” eaters of past years.  Parents are concerned about healthy diets and are being squeezed by the economy.

In a recent Nation’s Restaurant News article, it was reported that  “Meals ordered by children accounted for 1.3 billion visits to restaurants and $5.6 billion in sales in 2008, signaling a huge opportunity for restaurant operators, say officials at Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm The NPD Group.” In addition, they noted that traffic for parties with kids declined 3 percent in 2008, after being positive for more than three years prior.”

The Value of Time Fast casual restaurants have been well accepted by casual diners because they offer the best of all worlds – better food on the diner’s schedule.  Our time has become increasingly important, and eating at a casual dining restaurant puts the diner on the server’s schedule.  In fast casual, the diner can somewhat control the amount of time dedicated to dining.  Fast food restaurants are stepping up as well, providing more choice, more healthy alternatives and updated environments with features like Wi-Fi.

What is the future of family dining?  Ask Moms.  They want value and a way to stay within their budget.  They want fresh, bold new foods, flavors and experiences.  They want to provide their children with healthier choices and more food variety.  They want their utility dining to be more convenient, and their social dining to be more experiential.  They want their children to be comfortable and the restaurant to be family friendly.  And they want to know that the restaurants have similar social values, such as protecting the environment or providing local foods.

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