When Denny’s recently unveiled their newest restaurant, set to open in Manhattan’s Financial District, the design was nearly unrecognizable. The new restaurant is full of dark woods, tufted leather seats, copper ceilings, and full-wall photographic murals. There is even a craft cocktail bar serving pre-Prohibition era cocktails and an eye-catching $300 “Grand Cru Slam” which pairs two entrees with a bottle of Dom Perignon and a “bartender high-five.”
But the new Denny’s concept is representative of a broader shift in the industry, as a number of brands seek to regain market share lost during the recession and compete with fast casuals for the Millennial dollar. Now many restaurant chains are revamping their image with new logos; playful social media-driven marketing efforts (like that high-five from the bartender); modern décor; and a refreshed menu.
For the first in our two-part series of TrendSpotting Reports on recently revamped restaurants, we focused on the well-known chains that have recently (or are currently) refreshing their concept, discovering the modern trends that are impacting the entire landscape.
At newly remodeled restaurants and prototypes, many chains are taking a page from the fast casual handbook, refurbishing restaurants with lots of rustic wood and metal accents. The new Arby’s concept features natural wood walls and subway tiles, while Auntie Anne’s first refresh in the company’s history features warm woods and copper ovens. Chalkboards have become a favorite design element — some remodeled TGI Friday’s locations hire local artists to write the specials on chalk sandwich boards, while a massive chalkboard wall at revamped Domino’s locations allows both the staff and guests to write messages.
Simplicity is also key — kitschy memorabilia and busy designs are out, and today clean, modern lines and a less fussy aesthetic are on-trend. TGI Friday’s replaced the road signs and guitars that previously graced the chain’s walls with framed prints and photographs, while Mimi’s Cafe made a concerted effort to tone down the “theming” in the restaurant for their total brand overhaul. “If you have to tell people that you’re French, you’re not,” company president Phil Costner told the Orange County Register.
Much of the remodeled space and redesigned decor is aimed at refocusing attention on the food and ingredients. That Domino’s revamp has been dubbed “Pizza Theater” because customers can now watch employees craft their pizza in front of them — there is even a raised platform so that children can watch. Fresh ingredients like lettuces or vegetables are often prominently displayed, and designs may incorporate graphic typography on the walls with terms like “handcrafted,” “artisan,” and “fresh.” Such terms also show up on the menus themselves, which are often redesigned for a rustic-yet-premium look — out with laminated pages and in with hard covers and matte pages — or a tablet.
The dishes themselves are getting premium boosts, with more on-trend flavors and high-quality ingredients — fresh beef in burgers, bold dashes of sriracha or smoke — while appealing to more types of customers, whether it’s a health-driven gluten-free consumer or a guest who wants something a little more indulgent and adventurous. Asian-inspired menu items like shrimp in a sweet and sour sauce or salmon with miso have also become must-haves, even at a chain like the Latin-focused Abuelo’s Mexican Food Embassy, which added Firecracker Shrimp to their new menu. And customization is key — operators ranging from Wendy’s and McDonald’s to the Florida-based Hurricane Grill & Wings chain are testing or have added build-your-own-burger options to new menus.
But while some brands try to reach a wide variety of consumers, others have also become more focused on their core products and brand heritage. Joe’s Crab Shack, which won a MenuMasters award for their menu revamp, went back to their roots, focusing on crab dishes and the chain’s Gulf Coast roots. Carvel simplified the design of their ice cream shops to focus on their core product — “America’s Freshest Ice Cream.” When a new company took over Mimi’s, the chain even asked long-time employees to find the chain’s old recipes and menus, some of which can now be found on the new Mimi’s menu.
Of course, reconcepting is always a gamble, as brands risk alienating their existing customer base. Olive Garden has tested modern changes to their menu and decor multiple times, including a switch from their frosted, flower-shaped salad bowls. Yet the brand’s core customer base consistently preferred the original, noting that the bowl immediately triggered an association with Olive Garden’s unlimited salad deal. And the costs of renovating hundreds or thousands of units can be enormous, sometimes triggering a backlash from franchisees.
But for some chains, it’s “do or die” time, and evolution has become a necessity as brands react and adapt to the new economic landscape and changed consumer taste preferences. Olive Garden’s salad bowl may be staying, but nearly everything else about the brand is being refreshed, from the logo to the restaurant interior to that salad itself — you can now choose to add a premium topping. Today the chain is “purposely using ingredients that would have been considered polarizing” in the past, the brand’s head chef told Bloomberg. “If we don’t start introducing polenta, olives, and capers, we’re going to miss the boat.”
Maeve Webster is the senior director of Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis, and concept testing for the food industry. To subscribe to the Creative Concepts TrendSpotting Report mentioned in this article contact Webster at 312-655-0596 or [email protected]
If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s email list for more stories about the food and beverage industry. We offer 14 newsletters covering the industry from restaurants to food manufacturing.