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Jan 3, 2011

Neighborhood Casual Dining – Stands the Test of Time

A new category has emerged among us, it is called premium casual and has taken the place of what we know as upscale casual…
think of it as gourmet flat-bread pizzas made with fresh arugula, caramelized onions, and local small-farm goat cheese - taking the place of the classic Margherita pizza.

Consumers want more for their money.  Attracting new customers has become the top line approach for many struggling brands.  They are offering more value for the dollar and running special deals to catch the eye of new guests.  Guests want premium bottled water at casual dining venues. They want cozy, rich surroundings with a bucket of wings. They want modern, eclectic lunch houses with unusual menus, at a casual dining price.

In fact, consumers want more from their experience than ever before.  The average consumer is not willing to take risks with their dining dollar and they tend to gravitate towards value-added incentive campaigns.

This leaves the industry scrambling to remodel, renovate, and re-invent the wheel.  In a saturated market that has so many chasing the guest’s buck, chains are thinking outside the box.  Yet, some have strayed so far off the path of their initial concept that they have suffered the loss of consumers who no longer recognize what the brand has become.  And, yet, others have embraced a slow and steady growth into a changing market by recognizing most trends are fleeting and are remaining true to their original concept. 

But, let’s remember, trends are just that, trends. Most trends are fleeting and the average consumer is quite finicky. If you’re going to keep your core customer base, then remember to focus on the classic, proven principles... great food, awesome service, and a clean environment.

Keep with your standard, proven menu items and only sprinkle a few seasonal trends throughout to test your guest’s interests in a fiscally sound manner.  You may find that a few new items complement your current offerings and add value for your customer.  But, you will inevitably find that most can be easily replaced without notice. 

This “sprinkle” of fresh, seasonal menu items that placate the culinary trends should not comprise more than fifteen percent of your menu at any given time.  This allows you to be edgy and yet provide a comfortable and familiar experience for your regular crowd.  Don’t make the mistake of alienating the guests you already have to simply replace them with a new crowd of trend chasers.     

As the consumer's finances improve, you can bet that the food industry will be the first to prosper. People like rewarding themselves.  When life is good for the consumer– food is the first reward, every time.

The more things change…you know, they really do remain the same. Guests are geared towards returning to their comfort zone. Sure, they may try out that fancy little bistro uptown but they will always go back to their neighborhood grill for their favorite dish.

One of the best offerings to the consumer from upscale casual will always be familiarity. The recognition when they walk in the door – from the hostess to the bartender that knows not only their name – but what they like to drink, will always prove to be a key for building a core repeat business.

So, to those neighborhood casuals who are clamoring to make a change – relax, sit back, keep making your customers happy, and know that you are the gold standard that will always stand the test of time.


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Mastering The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck (Knopf, 1961)

The Joy of Cooking (Scribner, various editions 1931-2006)

French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David (Originally published in 1960. Penguin Classics, 1999)

Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant: Ethnic and Regional Recipes from the Cooks at the Legendary Restaurant by Moosewood Collective (Fireside, 1990)

Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen by Paul Prudhomme (William Morrow, 1984)

The Silver Spoon by Phaidon Press (First US edition: Phaidon, 2005)

The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter, 2007)

James Beard's American Cookery by James Beard (Little, Brown and Company, 1980)

The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph (Originally published in 1838. BiblioLife, 2008)

The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Shelia Lukins (Workman Publishing Company, 2007)

Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill by Frank Stitt (Artisan, 2004)

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Turkey Zucchini Lasagna
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Hope you Enjoy the Above Recipes ~ I did!

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