Applebee’s. Denny’s. Cracker Barrel. Even T.G.I. Fridays, considered the most “hip” of the casual dining chain bunch, is struggling to attract today’s under 30 population. What started out as places seeped in family tradition has now begun to crumple under the weight of more innovative dining outlets. Case in point: Chipotle. You must be lying if you’re a college student and you’ve never had a meal from Chipotle—be it breakfast, lunch, dinner or all 3 (there is no shame here). What is it about Chipotle that has us dreaming about their burritos or fantasizing about their bowls during class time? The chain, which now has over 1,600 locations as of last year, is categorized as a “fast casual dining chain;” in other words, not quite McDonalds but not quite Applebee’s either. Which, in this case, may actually be a good thing.
I don’t need to tell you that kids these days are a whole lot more health conscious than the generations before us, but we still crave something that can keep up with the fast-paced nature of our lives. This is where Chipotle comes in. Over the years their marketing strategies have been only getting better, and if you weren’t a Chipotle fan before reading this article than you surely will be after watching this video.
Their latest campaign won the gold award at the Cannes Lions 2013—think Oscars but for advertising. Not only did they manage to start a conversation about processed foods, they left their mark in today’s youth culture by replacing Taco Bell for the first time as No.1 in the Restaurant Social Media Index (a pretty big achievement if you ask me). Not only do their foods taste unique and delicious, but they’ve built a brand 20-somethings can relate to.
In contrast to this immensely successful chain, it appears that some things just don’t age so well no matter how much make-up you put on. The first words that come to mind when talking about Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s might include “tacky” or”‘lame.” And the unfortunate part is that they also realize how outdated they’ve become. Family sit-downs are becoming more and more rare, but that isn’t the only reason these casual dining chains are on track to an obsolete future.
For example, recently Olive Garden underwent a rebranding campaign; they made some changes to their logo and got rid of the Tuscany themed interior design. Big mistake. Just a few days after unveiling these modern touches, their stock fell and a ton of negative feedback came pouring in. Customers said that the reason they liked Olive Garden in the first place was because going to dine at one of their restaurants felt like walking into Tuscany itself—they were selling the Tuscan experience. Yet in trying to keep up with these millennial trends, Olive Garden lost their unique selling proposition. Essentially, they’re stuck in between a rock and a hard place.
Applebee’s is another good example of how you can try just a tad too much and come off in a worse situation than you were in before. Did you know that Applebee’s normally closes at 10 pm? Well, in an effort to appeal to a younger generation customer base, they’ve decided to extend their opening hours until 2 am by hosting an after-hours nightclub, Club Applebee’s. That’s right folks, party at Applebee’s on a Friday night! We didn’t think so either. And for that matter, we doubt you’d be spending much of your actual Friday at T.G.I. Friday’s likewise. Despite their rebranding efforts and even launching a Summer of Fridays road tour to promote their new fresh and handcrafted menu, it appears to be a lost cause. Although we have to give them props for trying, there are some good things that have come out of their need to reach a younger demographic. For instance, The Cheesecake Factory launched their SkinnyLicious menu, which provided ‘healthier’ options to customers after being dubbed “The Worst Family Restaurant” by Men’s Health.
It’s not so much what casual dining chains don’t represent (innovation and relatability), it’s what they do represent, and that’s a restaurant our parents used to go to and their parents before them. We want a place where we can start our own traditions. Despite changing logos, slogans, exteriors, interiors and even menus. These big names will someday soon become just a place of reference in our memories.