Casual Dining - The Tables Are Turning!
To kick things off, let’s ‘set the table’ and call on Wikipedia for an interpretation…
Casual Dining - “a restaurant that serves moderately-priced food in a casual atmosphere”.
Sounds good to me. So why is this wonderful, social sector of ours having such a hard time and taking hammerings in the press almost daily with headlines such as “The Weak Link in the Eating-out Space” or “The Slow Death of Casual Dining”?
For many of the exec board members responsible for remedying the problem, it is the $64,000 question but surely by accepting the fact that a well-priced meal in a comfortable setting is a fair offering, this must give some hope and confidence that it’s a sector that can, with some re-calibration of its proposition, be saved? I certainly believe so. However, more saliently some fundamental reassessments are necessary, particularly around customer experience and identifying who that hungry casual diner is; it is no longer a one-dimensional unambiguous “Joe Public”.
Modern society puts us in a very fragmented, segmented and vastly diverse community of fine diners, fast foodies, elders, millennials, generation Xs, Ys and Zs that makes identifying that correct, niche audience rather hard yet I’m convinced that getting it right will be the watershed moment for any casual establishment on the Road to Damascus. Furthermore, as soon as we accept the proverbial “it’s different strokes for different folks” the quicker the end to treading water in the murky depths of confusion.
By getting heads around who the modern casual diner is and what they expect from their dining experience, restaurants will be able to choose the right strategy, leading to a subsequent commercial recovery.
Don’t get me wrong, casual dining has more headaches than merely identifying and understanding its audience. My job provides me with a place at the front line (or a seat at the table if you will), helping restaurants and hospitality businesses overcome the many other factors adding to the misery.
I could talk about the advent of Netflix and same day delivery online-shopping adding to the decline in shopping centre and cinema sales and fewer hungry shoppers but it’s merely one of many. Don’t forget location problems, long leases, CVAs, higher labour costs, threatening new formats, tired brands, high rates and the fact that lower grocery prices mean eating at home is becoming more popular with fresh meals shipped to your door in 25 minutes but remember. In London in particular a large number of young professionals are living in small flats with high rents and shared living rooms with no dining tables in bustling parts of town. So I accept that “fast, fresh and cheap” is what the world wants but certainly not everyone wants to eat in at home.
To that end, this is where I feel the casual dining space must focus and Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Millennial!
Yes, home delivery is a new format that obviously will erode the appetites of some for eating out yet according to the UK Business Insider, Millennials (born approx 1982 to 1996) eat out more than anyone and as they get older will begin to retire from well-trodden European-style chains (largely unchanged since the ‘Milleni-um’) in favour of fine dining, eating groceries in their lovely homes and experimenting with one-off, standalone, casual destinations.
So, remembering that casual dining must provide that low-cost, casual atmosphere to remain viable (and we’ve identified already for whom that casual atmosphere is for), the rest is not quite so enigmatic either and whilst I am not a flip-flop wearing, half-day Friday, wi-fi dependent adolescent, I was nonetheless born in 1982* (*totally true) which for the purpose of this blog ‘snapchats’ me through the door of reasonable doubt and makes me, albeit just, a millennial.
So what do they (we) want? Well, if I had to call it, I would start with…
- Healthy eating – Low calorie options, vegetarian, vegan and allergen-aware dishes
- Home delivery – home delivery in Britain is growing 10 times faster than the total eating-out market (Source: NPD Group)
- Digital tech – Online reviews, feedback, TripAdvisor, pre-ordering, digital menus
- Informality and speed – Using restaurants as a place to socialise, charge phones; busy lifestyles requiring grab-and-go options
- Experience – It’s got to be different, it’s got to be a unique and immersive experience
- Value scrutiny – Value for money, set-menus, instant rewards, loyalty, coalition marketing
- High quality – Gourmet food prepared quickly, fresh and of high quality
These are a few things that light the fuse of change, although Customer Experience is one of the big ones and underpins the rest. It’s a complex recipe but it’s a must for all consumer businesses to embrace, or, fail and become the acquisition target of the next business that did.
Whilst many don’t know where or with whom customer experience responsibility sits internally (is it with the CEO, marketing or Ops), let’s assume for now that it’s a collective endeavour and frankly a fascinating endeavour at that!
Richard Lindsay is Principal of Retail and Leisure