Casual dining in for a change

Fewer casual dining outlets, smaller portions and healthier menu options were the top trends noted by restaurateurs at the "Navigating Restaurant Profitability in the New Economy" meeting in Orlando, Fla., earlier this week.
The event was part of the Dean's Leadership Series, sponsored by the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y.
Because of the difficult economy and the growing popularity of fast casual chains, such as Moe's Southwest Grill and Panera Bread Co., restaurant operators and academics believe the decline of some upscale and casual chains is imminent.
"Casual dining in the middle market is going to have some issues long-term. There are so many seats in a $12-average-check environment," says Donald Strang III, CEO of Strang Corp., which owns 29 Panera Bread franchises and 27 Applebee's restaurants.
"There will be fewer restaurants on the high end. I worry about [concepts such as] Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and Capital Grille," adds Alex Susskind, associate professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.
Other major trends impacting the restaurant and seafood industry in the future is Americans' move to smaller portions and healthier foods.
For example, Nicholas S. Vojnovic, president of Family Sports Concepts, franchisor of 250-unit Beef O'Brady's Family Sports Pubs in Florida, wants to put smaller protein sizes on its plates.
Instead of five to six ounces of beef, chicken, pork or seafood, Vojnovic is developing a menu that has around 3.5 ounces of protein on the plate.
Many chains have already benefited by adding smaller portion menus, which also feature a less expensive price tag than regular menu items. For example, Stonewood Grill and Tavern, with 18 locations in Florida and North Carolina features a smaller portion menu before 6 p.m.
"I believe the size of portions will be smaller by 2014," says Strang.
Additionally, restaurateurs say that more restaurant guests are demanding healthy menu items, including entrées featuring more produce and seafood.
"For years, people talked about eating healthy, but never bought the food. They are starting to buy it now," says Strang.


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