Restaurant visits are likely to be slightly down this year, a disappointment for operators and chains that have been struggling to stay afloat since soon after the recession hit in 2008, according to a survey out this week from AlixPartners. Restaurant visits are expected to decline 3% and consumers plan to spend about 5% less on restaurant meals than they did last year. They’ll increasingly be spending their money at the high and low ends of the price spectrum, leaving those in the middle vying harder than ever to keep customers coming in. Quickservice chains also are likely to have to work harder as they face more competition from both fast-casual concepts and convenience stores.
The patterns have shifted a bit since the early days of the recession, which is good news for white-tablecloth eateries. Fine-dining restaurants are enjoying an uptick as wealthy consumers spend again and corporate travel picks up, and fast-casual eateries reap the benefits as more Americans continue to trade down from higher-priced casual chains. A report last week from NPD Group mirrors that finding on the fast-casual end — it’s the only industry segment that’s grown consistently since the recession hit.
Midpriced casual chains will continue to struggle in 2012, the report says, and they’ll have to work smarter and continue innovating their menus and pricing to keep ahead of both declining head counts and higher commodity prices. “The winners will be those who have a firm grasp on the key drivers and influencers of consumers’ dining choices, and implement targeted programs designed to drive growth in an uncertain environment,” said Adam Werner, managing director at AlixPartners.
The report suggests several strategies for winning the tough fight to win and keep customers. Chains will increasingly need to:
- Become more relevant to consumers’ lives, with more flexible formats and improved offerings in the breakfast and beverage categories;
- Meet customers’ cravings for quality food and service, variety, and convenience;
- Rework menu to stress healthy options, which have moved from “good to have” to necessary;
- Employ a diverse marketing strategy that makes full use of mobile, social and local channels;
- Realize that promotions and “meal deals” are here to stay and get more creative on pricing of other menu items to keep total sales and margins up;
- Manage the supply chain to offset ongoing commodity price spikes this year.
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